During the constant armed conflicts and wars in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, women have been the main target of revenge and discrimination from all sides. Sexual violence remains an issue that affects many young women in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this article young women from CongoInThePicture’s GenderActions project interview Clarisse Zihindula, a leader of women’s issues in the area. Additional text by Kashindi Pierre.
During the constant armed conflicts and wars in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, women have been the main target of revenge and discrimination from all sides. From the Ituri region in the North-east of the country to Moba in the South-east, passing through the Kivu regions, all armed groups operate in the same way: they rape and terrorise, and after raping some massacre and bury their victims in mass, unmarked graves. In light of the use of women as a weapon of war by the militias and the bad publicity that such acts cause against the Democratic Republic of Congo, known by its neighbours as the most hospitable country in the region, is it possible to reverse the trend and use women instead as a weapon to fight against sexual violence?
The team of the GenderActions project, responsible for women’s affairs in CongoInThePicture, a youth-led organization for peace, democracy and sustainable development, put three questions to Ms. Clarisse Zihindula, researcher on women’s issues at TabienProd, a Dutch organization based in Goma, North Kivu.
Gender Equity (GA) : What do you think the role of Congolese women in the fight against sexual violence should be? Clarisse Zihindula (CZ): Congolese women must play a leading role in the fight against sexual violence, as they are the victims of this outrage. They are the only people who can tell the truth about sexual violence because it is they who feel the bitterness it creates. They can utilise this bitterness to take responsible measures to ensure that the culprits be brought to justice. After being raped, women remain silent about their situation simply because they do not know where to turn; others are afraid to speak out for fear of being discriminated against in their own homes and families. But what I advise them is to break the silence and denounce the perpetrators, so that justice can be done. (GA) : The Congolese justice system penalises rape with up twenty years imprisonment. But despite that sexual violence continues.
(CZ) : Sexual violence will not decrease as long as the wars in the country continue, especially since, as you know, women are used as a weapon of war. Therefore, as armed conflicts continue, the risk of violence against our girls and women as a weapon of war will remain in our country. So we urge the government to commit sufficient effort to eradicate all these armed groups, to end impunity and bring to justice all those rapists, even if today it seems to be such a difficult task. NGOs are already doing a very good job in this area, but they have no weapons with which to eradicate these armed groups, so I think it is still the role of the government to this, as a building block for a Congo without sexual violence. (GA): Most girls are not interested in sexual violence and yet they are the primary target. This is why CongoInThePicture initiated GenderActions, a project that addresses women’s issues within the organisation. So do you think these kinds of projects could have a positive impact and boost women’s efforts in the fight against sexual violence in the Kivu regions?
(CZ): Actually, this is a very good initiative when we consider how under-informed our girls are about this subject. And it is this lack of information that means that when they are raped, they are often reluctant to report it – most of them consider it as something normal. I would compare them to someone who is deprived of his fundamental rights without knowing it. It is also up to parents to teach their children some of the realities of life. This situation could also be due to the taboos around talking about sex in our African customs. The girls know that sexual violence is not a good thing, but they don’t take it seriously. They do not know the terms and laws in this area. So your project is of paramount importance. And furthermore, I hope you will be able to conduct awareness campaigns in schools in urban areas, as it is in school where a significant number of cases of sexual violence are recorded due to the practice commonly known as PST (Points Sexuellement Transmissibles). [This is where female students are pressured to have sex with teachers in order to receive improved grades]
(GA): What would you suggest to the international community?
(CZ): I have nothing to suggest, but I would just like to thank the international community for its support in the effort to fight against the abuse of women, and we hope that with projects like yours the day will come when we no longer have speak of sexual violence in the Kivu region and throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo in general. Despite severe penalties of up to 20 years imprisonment being handed out, cases of sexual violence continue to be registered throughout the Kivu regions, largely due to perceived impunity. GenderActions, as part of CongoInThePicture, is a purely female project, initiated by the younger members of the organisation to work with girls from both rural and urban areas, as a weapon to fight against sexual violence. Different techniques are used, including the organisation of awareness campaigns, cultural events and conferences to reflect on the strategies to take to eradicate this pandemic.