Before it surrendered, the M23 rebel group waged a 19-month campaign of raping, killing and burning villages. Rape was specifically used as tool of war—one that instilled what the Enough Project calls “fear at a low cost”.
But while the M23 lay down its arms two months ago, fear is still a daily feature of life for many Congolese. Dozens of other militia groups in the Congo, as well as the Congolese army, rape and traumatize communities. Congo is now in that strange and enduring space between full-scale war, “intermittent conflict” and post-conflict.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the Orientale province of the Congo.
We came to Bunia, the capital of the Orientale province, at the invitation of the formidable Congolese activist Julienne Lusenge. Julienne wanted us to see first-hand the work of her organization SOFEPADI (Female Solidarity for Peace and Integrated Development).
Yesterday morning we visited one of SOFEPADI’s projects, the Medical Center Karibuni Wa Mama (welcome mothers, in Swahili). The same space used to house a hospital run by Medecins Sans Frontieres. MSF closed their operation at that location in 2010, and SOFEPADI picked up where MSF left off—with a special focus on working on women’s reproductive health and survivors of sexual violence.
The Karibuni provides holistic services for women and, in particular, sexual violence survivors. Those services include not only basic medical help, but also psychological and legal support. Women with fistulas or very severe injuries to their reproductive organs are transferred to another hospital to wait for a doctor who occasionally flies in from London. On average, the centre welcomes 950 patients per month. About 85% of those patients are treated for sexually-transmitted diseases, 5% for sexual violence, and the remaining 10% come for family planning.
SOFEPADI staff told us that this modest clinic, with it’s white-washed walls and airy thatched roofs, is the only such facility in the whole province—a territory the size of Spain.
Women come from hundreds of kilometres to reach the Karibuni centre. One woman walked two full days. Ten militia men brutally raped her after a funeral in her village. Having lost her parents and husband to the conflict, this 25-year-old woman now struggles in Bunia to survive with two children, the youngest who is only three months old. She finds occasional work doing hard labor.
The staff at Karibuni say they can barely meet the basic needs of this, and other women, who make the difficult journey to their centre. While the conflict in Orientale province is not as intense as it was four years ago, militias from a variety of rebel groups still terrorize people in three major areas of the province.
And here lies the challenge for grassroots groups. So-called “intermittent conflicts” do not attract headlines—or donor dollars. The staff at the Karibuni centre say they do their work in isolation, with little support from local and national levels of government. Making the case to international donors is tough. The money and resources go to the “intense conflict zones”. After almost two decades of on-again, off-again conflict, donor fatigue is high.
Another layer of complexity: the changing story of sexual violence in this region of Congo. It is now increasingly men who are being raped by local militia groups, while women are experiencing skyrocketing rates of domestic violence. The lack of economic and basic security at home is fueling violence against women in their most intimate spaces.
These are complexities that Julienne Lusenge and her colleagues at Karibuni understand, and deal with everyday.
And somehow they stretch limited funding to cover not only medical and psychological care for survivors of sexual violence, but also to pay for helping women through the legal system and even feed and transport them. On top of it all, they empower women to understand their basic rights. They do this work at great risk to themselves, and with remarkable efficiency and compassion.
But it’s not enough. Julienne feels like her efforts—heroic as they seem to those of us watching her from the sidelines—are only a small drop in a very deep bucket.
Rachel Vincent is the Director of Media and Communications for Nobel Women’s Initiative. Vincent started her career as a radio journalist, working for six years in Canada, the US and Mexico, where she hosted an afternoon radio program in Mexico City. She left journalism to be the head of communications for the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, based in Montreal. For the last 16 years, she has turned her in-depth understanding of media towards advising NGO’s and others on how to communicate their messages most effectively through media. She has worked as a senior communications advisor, speechwriter and media strategist for not-for-profit groups and governments on international and social justice issues.