– Women have borne and continue to bear a disproportionate amount of the suffering caused by two decades of conflict in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Many militia fighters prefer soft civilian targets to other armed men. In order to reach safety, women are forced to cover long distances on foot-many whilst pregnant or nursing a baby. Women and girls are far more likely to suffer sexual violence although there are also cases of male victims.
Sexual violence in the region often takes extreme forms and frequently damages both the reproductive organs and the excretory system, leading to urinary and/or faecal incontinence. It is often perpetrated by armed men and many rapes involve numerous assailants with the victims sometimes dying from their injuries. Since some rapist believe that raping an old woman absorbs her wisdom or that the man who rapes a baby purifies himself or rids himself of disease,the victims can range in age from a few months to 80 years old.
In the DRC, if a man knows his wife or partner has been raped he will normally reject her. Her own family will often also reject her. This means that even when treatment is available many rape victims hesitate to access it for fear of becoming social outcasts.
Here are the stories of women displaced by a flare up of fighting between Mai-Mai Mazembe and Nyatura, rival militias from two different ethnic groups.
*Names have been changed to protect identity
“It was in April. Four of them showed up at the house — men I had never seen before, armed with machetes. It was when I was pregnant,” she recounted in a whisper.
“Two of them raped me in front of my children. But they didn’t touch the children. My husband wasn’t around. I don’t know what has become of him,” she went on, huddled under a blue cotton shawl.
“I was able to deliver a healthy baby,” Catherine added. In a region where rapes often involve penetration with a fire arm or a sharpened stick, giving rise to serious health problems and seriously endangering any pregnancy already underway, Catherine realizes she was lucky.
“After that we ran away – me and my two children and my neighbour and her six children. We walked for three days before reaching the main road and there we were lucky – there was a UN force convoy going by and they brought us all here. I was wandering the streets as I didn’t know where to go with the children when this lady said we could stay with her. She’s been very good to us,” she continued, her sunken cheeks drenched in sweat. She has been confined to bed for a month with malaria and has lost about half her body weight, lacking the money to go and get treatment.
“If I find my husband I won’t tell him about the rape and the children are too small to tell him.”
Mariya, a 14-year-old orphan, recounted how she was in the fields with a neighbour and another girl of her own age, when she was attacked.
“When we saw them coming we started to run. The other two managed to get away but I tripped and they caught me.”
“There were three of them and two raped me,” she recounted in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Then four men came past and they found me on the ground half naked and crying,” and they carried me here.” She said that she had received appropriate medical care on her arrival. To her frustration though, she has not been able to go back to school as she does not have the few dollars that that would cost.
She feels an overwhelming sense of relief that only two other women and a doctor know that she was raped.
She insists that her rapists were just common criminals rather than members of an armed group but in the region distinguishing between the two can be difficult.