DRC: Rape is only the beginning

Date: January 27, 2011
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In October 2010, the first lady of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) Olive Lembe Kabila led thousands of women through the streets of Bukavu, South Kivu province, in opposition to the rape and defilement of women in the country.

In December 2010, the women of Rutshuru, North Kivu province, marched through the streets for the same reasons.

Yet the violence continues and gender justice remains a utopian ideal.

Médecins Sans Frontières recently reported that 33 women had been brutally and viciously sexually assaulted on New Year’s Day in South Kivu. Estimates vary on how many women have been raped, but they are all shockingly tragic – tens of thousands of rapes have occurred in the Congo over the past decade.

An article in last week’s Economist magazine stated that “Congo’s horrors are mind-boggling.”

It quoted a recent report by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and Oxfam which studied survivors of gender-based violence at a hospital in Bukavu. Ranged in age from three to 80, almost 60% had been gang-raped, often in front of their families.

However, the article suggests the world is slowly paying more attention to rape in conflict situations because of better reporting. It notes a “growing concern” about what is happening in DRC.

The truth is, unless justice for women in situations of conflict is viewed alongside other pertinent issues, violence in some form will only persist.

Gender-based violence is usually associated only with rape and murder, yet there are also deeper issues pertaining to patriarchal power and unequal wealth distribution. Power – especially economic power – and a war driven by an endless battle for natural resources in a region on the brink of environmental disaster, is a small piece of this tragic puzzle which can’t be left aside.

Due to rapid globalisation it is now difficult to separate the issues of gender, economic, and environmental, justice.

Compounding the staggering violence due to war are deaths which come as a result of illnesses related to the environment: malaria and cholera, for instance, which have to do with water.

Access to clean water is a major issue, especially for women and children who are responsible for finding it. Traditional gender roles and lack of infrastructure mean women have to walk long distances for water, putting them at much greater risk of sexual assault.

And this means most women are at risk. Poverty is widespread in the country despite the wealth of its natural resources. The economy is divided between a small group who share the resource wealth and millions more who don’t.

For these reasons gender issues are fundamentally linked to environmental and economic issues.

The launch of the African Women’s Decade last year was meant to buttress other initiatives around women’s rights and development, such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development and the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s).

The goals of the MDGs and other instruments explicitly link economic development with the environment, gender and conflict.

African leaders have done a very good job of signing documents that herald gender-integrated approaches to the continent’s many problems, but how much has actually been achieved?

The DRC illustrates that once conflict is added to an institutionalised lack of justice, problems are exacerbated.

In any discussion of gender justice there is always a deeper issue, usually not all that far below the surface. In the case of the DRC, there are many deeper issues. So while rape in the DRC is a tragic and growing problem, solving it would just be the beginning.

Tackling the problems of the DRC means sorting out the country’s flawed economic structures, which allow for massive corruption and exploitation leading to environmental degradation.

Legal instruments and international summits need to address these challenges, which have the greatest impact on the country’s women. It is time to stop talking and start doing something.

Economic, environmental and gender justice will all come from the same place. It means kicking away the hierarchical power structures that keep women at the very bottom, far below men. Bringing about gender justice must be done in tandem with economic and environmental justice: one will not happen without the other.

Next time the first lady wants to take part in a march for equality and justice, she might think about bringing it to the capital, to the very halls of power where these problems can only truly be solved.

Shaudzirai Mudekunye is the Gender Links Justice Programme Officer. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service which brings fresh views to everyday news.



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