A few months ago human rights campaigners had that very rare thing - some comparatively good news out of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Three men had been convicted of the rape of a 56-year-old woman called Bitondo Nyumba, a mother of four from Katungulu, South Kivu Province.
In May 2005 seven government army soldiers had attacked her in her own home. She was beaten and raped and her house was looted. Her injuries were so severe that despite two operations she later died.
Her family launched a campaign to have the perpetrators brought to justice. Against a general backdrop of near-total impunity for cases like Nyumba‘s, it was no small victory to have these men pronounced guilty by a military tribunal in Uvira on 5 September 2008. But, actually, as it has turned out, that victory was decidedly short-lived.
First, the three men actually remained untouched, still serving within their regiment; and second, this already blighted country was about to suffer a further convulsion, with fresh fighting plunging the eastern provinces into renewed anarchy and lawlessness.
Here’s another Congo story. A woman called “Christine” (not her real name), from the North Kivu, Masisi territory, became head of her household after her husband was killed during the early years of the Congo conflict. For many women in this region to be without male heads of household is to add to the risks they face daily.
Christine and two of her daughters were at home in 2002 when fighters from an armed group broke into her home. She and her daughters were all raped. Determined to recover and fight back, Christine actually became a rape survivor counsellor in Masisi territory.
However, tragically, there was to be no satisfying Hollywood movie-style arc to this tale. In July 2007 Christine was taking a group of rape victims to Goma for medical care when she found a young woman by the roadside tied hand and foot. “I started to untie her”, recalls Christine. “She had been raped by soldiers who had pushed a piece of wood into her. She was telling me that she was supposed to be getting married on Saturday.” This was not to be a moment of rescue and salvation. Christine, the other women and the traumatised girl were soon waylaid by four soldiers who proceeded to viciously beat Christine before gang-raping her in front of the other terrified women. In the aftermath of the attack Christine discovered that the rescued girl had been killed.
Showing almost superhuman strength, Christine continues with her work. She travels to rural areas identifying survivors and arranging care and support for them. And she runs a small refuge providing basic medical care, counselling and advice, dealing with women of all ages, but sometimes girls as young as 12. The women also cultivate nearby fields to generate income.
Brave though they are, Christine’s heroic efforts are just a drop in the ocean in Congo. Essentially the outlook is still extremely bleak for her and other embattled Congolese women. So where are we to look for some sense of hope in what is unquestionably a desperate situation? The answer - with a heavy dollop of caveats - is Liberia.
Congo’s own complex situation clearly requires specific peace-creation efforts, ones that will almost certainly involve a long-postponed effort to bring to justice the Rwandan Hutu genocidaires who remain at liberty in eastern Congo. But it will also require the kind of disarmament and reintegration into mainstream society of armed groups that Liberia has seen in recent years.
Liberia’s war-torn period - 1989 to 2003 - punctuated by the outbreak of a shaky peace during 1997-9, saw many of the horrors that Congo is revisiting: shifting armed groups of often searing viciousness, the perpetration of utterly heinous atrocities against civilians, the kidnap and use of child soldiers, the deployment of rape as a weapon of war, and the self-serving involvement of other nations with an eye on valuable mineral deposits.
As with Congo, Liberia’s horror story had involved the quiet deliberate use of extreme sexual violence to humiliate and terrorise entire communities (men often seeing the “shame” of not protecting their female relatives from rape as particularly hard to deal with). But, for all that, it is recovering; not fully, but quite considerably.
How so? Well, fitfully and with repeated setbacks, it has with some determination attempted to carry out disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and rehabilitation programmes (DDRR in the jargon) that United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions advise as part of the post-conflict route to stability.
In particular, Liberia has tried to address two specific UNSC resolutions: 1325 and 1820. These insist that for long-term peace, stability, economic security, equality and development of a post-conflict society, peace has to have gender at its heart.
Women need to be at the table with the men in suits as they carve up, reorganise and rebuild peace and a new order. It’s not about doing a favour to the poor women who have suffered - it’s about recognising that conflict and attendant poverty and social breakdown will be prolonged, deepened and re-ignited unless gender is at the heart of the process.
And while Liberia’s implementation of 1325 and 1820 has been far from perfect, Prime Minister Ellen Sirleaf Johnson has continued to support gendered post-conflict projects.
The Liberian experience has actually begun to reveal that, as with Christine’s Herculean efforts in Congo, the best projects have turned out to be women-led ones for the women themselves.
Liberian women have not just lived and recovered from the brutality of rape and the trauma of child soldiering, they have helped others to live, recover and help rebuild their own societies. Congo needs to look to Liberia sooner rather than later.
Heather Harvey, Amnesty International UK Stop Violence Against Women campaign manager
Amnesty International has helped organise a speaking tour with two former female child soldiers from Liberia who are discussing Liberia’s post-conflict reintegration programmes for women. They will speak at The Women's Library, London Metropolitan University, 25 Old Castle Street, London E1 7NT, on Thursday 20 November at 6.30pm. To book: www.amnesty.org.uk/events_details.asp?ID=1057