I have vivid memories of the trauma of living with the growing climate of uncertainty leading up to our country’s civil war in the early 1990s, and of the years of destruction that followed.
The effects of war have been particularly devastating for women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as rape and sexual violence replaced armed combat as a weapon of war.
As the DRC celebrates 50 years of independence, recent research we carried out with nearly 1,800 women and 200 men in the eastern provinces shows us that, for Congolese women, independence is still a long way off. Despite the huge UN presence, women live in fear of rising sexual violence — not just from the militia, but increasingly from neighbours within their own communities.
The situation has become so extreme that Margot Wallström, the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, has called the DRC “the rape capital of the world”.
In first nine months of 2009 alone there were 7,500 reported cases of rape in eastern DRC. Sexual violence is rampant in the region, with one woman being raped every two hours in the eastern province of South Kivu, according to the UN.
The lack of military discipline, of policing and legal protection for women has created an environment where the men who carry out rapes and sexual attacks have little to fear.
Women told us that fear owing to daily insecurities, trauma and violence is having a severe impact on their mental health and physical well-being as well as their everyday lives.
The scale of violence in DRC is well documented. More than 5.4 million people have died since the conflict began in 1998. The death toll is equivalent to an Asian tsunami every six months or so, or a 9/11 every two and a half days.
Every day 1,200 women, men and children in the Congo die (half of these being children under five).
Women are not just living in fear of sexual violence, but are experiencing severe poverty and mental health challenges that are reaching epidemic proportions. Our research found out that for every 100 women in DRC:
- 40 have lost their home
- 80 do not own a mattress
- 40 never attended school
- 50 eat only one meal a day
- 80 earn $1 or less per day
- 80 are from villages that have been attacked
- 80 think their current village will be attacked
- 50 have spouses who left because of war
- 50 are afraid to work outside of their home
- 80 are unhappy with their lives today
- 70 think about harming themselves
We are calling on the international community, the UK government and the UN to work with the Congolese government to:
- Improve the security situation
- Address mental health problems
- Invest in women
- Involve men in solutions for women
- Channel local momentum for peace
Our report showed us that security is consistently ranked by those surveyed as the priority issue for improving their lives. It is the linchpin for community recovery. Without a resolution of the broader conflict, a normal life for women and their families is not possible.
Despite this backdrop of war, poverty and sexual violence, women in DRC are holding families together. Their resilience and strength shine through. They continue to support their families and believe that peace is achievable.
Christine Karumba is country director of Women for Women International in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
DRC: Stronger Women Stronger Nations http://www.womenforwomen.org/events-supporting-women/files/Congo-Briefing.pdf