Ongoing Conflict in DRC Spares No one (Trigger Warning)

Ongoing Conflict in DRC Spares No One

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Stépha Rouichi, Advocacy Manager for CARE DRC

*Trigger Warning: Sexual assault

During my visit to Kasai in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I was visiting a health center in Miabi Heath. I was accompanied by a nurse who was trained by CARE on sexual and reproductive health.  Like many other health staff supported by CARE, she also received training on sexual and gender-based violence.

Like many health facilities I visited, this one is once again very poorly equipped. The teams do not have enough medication and technical equipment. According to a recent survey, more than 1,400 survivors of sexual violence have accessed services providing treatment on sexual violence in Kasai provinces between August 2016 and May 2017. The majority of incidents reported (68%) were cases of sexual violence against girls between 12 and 17. Nonetheless, the number of cases is estimated to be much higher, given the stigma associated with rape and the few service providers where women and girls can seek help. The nurse tells me that cases of sexual violence have been steadily increasing since fighting broke out in the entire Miabi Health zone a few months ago.

Violence spares no one: children, women, and elderly are all affected. In front of me, a waking woman with extinct eyes tells me about the painful experience that she has lived through. "My name is Lila. I am 61 years old and I had eleven children. Six of my children are already dead. I have been a widow for a year. It was in June of this year, I was in the fields collecting cassava leaves to be able to sell them. All this occurred nearby the Kapas River, one of the militia's strongholds.”

For several months, Lila had seen more and more armed men in the neighboring villages. It made her and the other villagers feel very uncomfortable. On that day, six armed men passed by and one of them started shouting at Lila. He was around 35-years-old. He was the same age as one of her sons. He had a rifle in his hand. He told her to put down the manioc leaves. She replied that she had just come to cultivate her field. “Put what you have in your hands if not I shoot you”. She agreed to do so. He grabbed her by the arm and took her to the bush.

He ordered her to lay down, put his gun on her shoulder and hit her on the chest with his hand.

Lila says that she stayed silent while he raped her. When he had finished, he asked her to go home. She adds in a barely audible voice. “I had very severe pain in my lower abdomen. I was ashamed. He was a young man, of the age of my son. I returned to the fields. The other soldiers had left. I could not sleep during the night. In the morning I went to community radio to talk about what had happened to me. The village chief referred me the hospital in Miabi. The doctor did the tests and he tried to calm me down. I stayed three days in the hospital. Then, I came back home. I was obsessed by the image of this man who is the age of my son. I will not be able to recognize his face. All armed men look the same. I keep thinking about it, I do not dare to go to my field anymore because I am afraid of meeting those men again. I have nothing. Nothing at all.”

She looks at me with her sad and extinguished gaze. What can I do now?

When I ask her if there is something that is important to her to convey about this, she says: “Those men who rape our daughters or old women like me must be put on trial.”

She is not the first survivor I met who asks for reparation and justice. The humanitarian community must mobilize its efforts, provide urgent funds and treatment for aid organizations such as CARE to be able to provide a holistic response to all these survivors of sexual violence. When we hear and read the horrific numbers of sexual violence in DRC, we need to bear in mind that behind each statistic are women like Lila. Women, who have to suffer rape and sexual violence on a daily basis.

However, most importantly, we urgently need to reach an agreement for the cessation of hostilities and achieve a continued dialogue between parties to the conflict to negotiate a peaceful resolution. Without peace, the violence against women will never stop. Civilians must be protected, they have already endured too much. On my way back, reflecting on my day and my meeting with Lila, I thought: no one is spared by this crisis.

More than 1,400 survivors of sexual violence have accessed services providing treatment on sexual violence in Kasai provinces between August 2016 and May 2017. Credit: Kate Holt