Never touch a woman, not even with a rose petal.
“Conversation could do more good than all the medicine in the world.”
Who: CAMPS (Centre D’Assistance Medico–Psychosociale)
What: Gives psychosocial support to families who have been subjected to violence in South Kivu.
We think we are on our way to see a village elder who will give us the population statistics for the Kavumu region. Our jeep suddenly stops on the dirt track; it can’t go any further. From here we will have to walk. The path is a narrow trodden strip between tall banana plants. It is eerily quiet. We know that this is an area where many guerilla attacks have taken place, mainly by the Hutu militia. Maybe that is why we find the silence a little frightening.
Then we arrive and the elderly man who meets us had no village statistics.
Instead he showed us a deep open cut on one arm. He got this during the attack when the soldiers tied him up before stealing everything he owned and raping both his pregnant daughters-in-law.
One of his daughters-in-law greets us quickly then disappears into the greenery. She does not want to talk. The other daughter-in-law is still in Panzi Hospital. Her unborn child may have been injured.
When did it happen?
In the early hours of last Wednesday.
Last week! In the very place where we are standing now. Suddenly it all becomes frighteningly real.
3,000 women and around 4,000 young girls live in the Kavumo district. In 2011, CAMPS saw 332 rape victims, and the number of unrecorded cases is, of course, high.
Justin Kabanga is a professor of psychology and the co-ordinator for CAMPS’ work around the province of South Kivu. He explains that traditionally, mental problems have been almost unheard of in East Congo’s rural areas.
“Everything that affected people and which could not be explained as a physical injury or illness was believed to come from some sort of witchcraft. Post-traumatic stress was the result of someone putting an evil spirit on the person, or using some other form of black magic.
Women who had been abused and came to our listening house and were able to talk about their problems realised that talking about it could help.
“The knowledge that the body and soul react to extreme stress, and that it’s completely normal, came as a relief for all those people who felt something but couldn’t talk about it. Women who had been abused and came to our listening house and were able to talk about their problems realised that talking about it could help. They found out that a conversation could do more good than all the medicine in the world.
“The problem was that they often relapsed into depression and anxiety when they went home. People round them regarded them as ‘dirty’, as no longer having the right to live with other people.
“So we had to go out and talk to people. The villagers and families were guilty of the same injustices as the rapists. They were killing their women a second time.”
We travel with CAMPS to the village of Kamakombe, to a meeting where school pupils will be given information about the new law on sexual violence. Around 50 secondary school pupils have gathered outside the schoolhouse which has very few inner walls. A teacher walks around with a stick, hitting any students who talk, and lashing out at the small grimy children who dart around with the agility of monkeys. A young woman in a shiny white dress, a trainee from the Rural Development College, shows pictures of different types of sexual violence.
A young woman in a shiny white dress, a trainee from the Rural Development College, shows pictures of different types of sexual violence.
The pupils, who look to be between 11 and 19 years old, listen attentively. Some of the information interests them more than other, such as that a rape victim can be given a ‘pep kit’ which prevents pregnancy and HIV infection, as long as she goes to the CAMPS office within 72 hours. (“Is that only when it’s rape?” asks a tall well-built boy with a smile.) The fact that the law says that when a married man forces his wife to have sex that is rape, has to be repeated several times.
Most of the pupils have hardly talked about sex before, and certainly not with adults. Dimanche is an 18-year-old youth who asks a lot of questions. He has his own terrible experiences of violence. In July 2007, an armed group arrived at his family’s house. His sister resisted when the soldiers tried to rape her. They murdered her. Dimanche, who witnessed everything, has received no help. He does not feel good.
Most of the pupils have hardly talked about sex before.
Professor Kabanga believes everything is connected and is about women’s subordination in Congo, which is ruled by tradition. It has been possible to attack the self-esteem of men, indeed of society as a whole, by attacking their ‘possessions’, the women. The military abuse has also spread to civilian society. People have seen too many brutal assaults, and the traditional limits of what is taboo have been crossed.
“The old traditions were certainly not good,” says Professor Kabanga. “For example, there are now 16 different things which are forbidden under the new sexual crimes legislation. A number of them, such as the ban on child marriages, will not be accepted because of our tradition. The fact is that we have been given a chance. We can start from the beginning and build a society which does not discriminate against women.”
Maternal deaths: Just over 900 deaths per l00,000 births ****
Number of children/woman: 5.2 (2011)
Abortion legislation: Abortion is forbidden, even when the mother’s life is at risk.
Law against rape within marriage: No
Violence against women in close relationships: 1.8 million women will be raped during their lifetime. Congo is the second most dangerous country in the world for a woman to live in.