Denis Mukwege & Sexual Violence in Conflict

I recently had the honor of attending a speech by a truly inspirational person, 2018 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Denis Mukwege. 

Dr. Mukwege has devoted his life to the rights and health of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). For more than two decades conflict has been tearing the country apart, and over those years rape and sexual violence have been used extensively as weapons of war. Sexual violence has been used throughout history and continues to be used to this day as a weapon of destruction (anyone can be a victim, although it is most often women and girls).

Dr. Mukwege recognized not only the health-related consequences, but also the psychological and social devastation, that sexual violence in conflict was causing in the DRC. As his country continued to go through turmoil, his medical practice in the city of Bukavu turned into a refuge center.

Thousands of sexual violence victims targeted by armed militias came to him. Women and girls of all ages sought his help.

During his talk, he showed the audience an image of a very young child who was brought to his practice after being brutally raped and disfigured. It is an image I will not forget for a long time. What I realized at that moment is that our emotions of disgust and anger around sexual violence in conflict are minuscule in comparison with what women and children have gone through and the pain they have experienced.

In 2012, Dr. Mukwege gave a speech in front of the UN assembly in which he denounced the violence against women and girls in his country. Shortly after, his home was attacked by armed men who held his family at gunpoint and killed one of his closest friends inside his home, and in front of his friend’s own children.

I can still hear the doctor’s voice, coloured by sadness and grief, as he told this story. His emotion was so raw, as though the tragic incident had just happened.

After the attack, Dr. Mukwege and his family were forced to flee the country, leaving the women of the DRC behind. Their vulnerability did not prevent them from taking action.

Dr. Mukwege relayed the women’s courage, strength and persistence in finding creative ways of getting their doctor back.

They first wrote to authorities but received no response. People urged them to give up hope that he would ever return. Dr. Mukwege shared the women’s words:

“We took a decision, we [are] going each Friday to sell fruit and vegetables and bring the money here at the hospital until we get the total amount to buy the ticket for him to come back…”

“If no one wants to give him security, we are thousand[s] of women…each night, 24 hours, we will get 25 women around the house and we will be around him so if someone want[s] really to kill him [he will] have to kill 25 women before killing him.”

Dr. Mukwege was so moved by their efforts and bravery that he returned to Congo in the midst of all the chaos and the threats to his life. The admiration he had for these women overshadowed all his doubts: “This was very strong…when I was treating them, I could say that they were weak but there, I was weak, and women were strong, and they brought me back in Congo,” he told us. 

I had tears in my eyes as I listened. I don’t think there was a single individual in the room that day who was not moved by Dr. Mukwege’s story.

He portrayed the strength of the women of the DRC through his words. I believe that women worldwide are the epitome of strength and resilience and Dr. Mukwege’s story clearly portrays that resilience.

It is from these very convictions that we at the Swedish Organization for Global Health – along with so many others across the world – work towards achieving our goals and aspirations for women’s health, safety and empowerment worldwide.

At times when we feel utterly defeated and consumed with our own worries, when our own uncertainties take over our thoughts and conquer our emotions, it is people like Dr. Mukwege and the brave women of Congo who put life back into perspective. We are a force when we come together! We can, without a doubt, overcome all obstacles and injustices. 

Listen to Dr. Mukwege’s amazing speech and read more about his efforts and work here. Read more about The Mukwege Foundation and the wonderful work they do.

Improving Medical Response to Violence in Fragile Settings

His full name is Dr. Jean Jose Nzau Mvuezolo, but everyone calls him Jimmy.He is kind, friendly, and easygoing – the type of person you cannot help but like right away. Jimmy is from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but now he lives in the US, where he works as deputy director for CARE’s SAFPAC team (SAFPAC stands for ‘supporting access to family planning and post-abortion care’).

SAFPAC currently supports sexual and reproductive health projects in 13 countries, but most activities are focused in three fragile states: DRC, Chad, and Mali. Jimmy agreed to talk with me about the work CARE is doing to train health providers (doctors and community health workers) to respond to cases of sexual violence, which tend to increase in times of crisis, stretching already overburdened and under-resourced health and social service systems.

Sexual violence happens everywhere. But in places like these, where the government is weak and social structures are destroyed, it is easy to commit all sorts of human rights violations,” Jimmy explained.  

What kind of training do the providers need so they can help sexual violence survivors?” I asked, expecting him to list off a bunch of medical and data management procedures I would not fully understand.

Basically,” he responded, “they need to understand the concept and accept reality.

I asked what he meant…

It turns out, some doctors in DRC, Chad, and Mali aren’t much different from powerful men anywhere.

In countries and communities all around the world, women are considered less valuable than men, and men are able to use their higher status to take advantage of women and girls.

Many of the doctors Jimmy talked to were also professors at local medical schools, and saw no problem sleeping with their young students or nurses. The concept of gaining consent was foreign to them, and some thought it was okay to repeatedly approach a woman for sex even after she said no.

They did not see how it would be possible for a woman to be raped by her husband or a sex worker to be raped by anyone, because once one is married or has engaged in sex for pay, they can be assumed to be available for sex at all times. If a woman was assaulted, they immediately wanted to know what she might have done to put herself in that dangerous situation.

‘Sexual harassment’ was believed, by some of the men Jimmy spoke to, to be a Western idea and something that did not exist in Africa.

Now imagine coming to one of these health providers as a rape victim – distressed, hurting, and in need of care. I shudder to think about how such a visit could make an already bad situation so much worse.

So Jimmy and the other CARE facilitators start every training they do with a discussion of power dynamics, and what true consent looks like. Participants are asked to critically reflect on their own attitudes and behaviors toward women in their lives, and how they would feel if someone else treated their mothers, wives, or daughters the same way.

Jimmy described the process as “helping them to understand themselves.” They also talk about the laws in their own countries that prohibit violence and harassment of women, to demonstrate that gender-based violence is not actually a western idea.

Only after several days of reflection and value clarification exercises do the trainings move on to the clinical skills needed for treatment of sexual violence, which are, Jimmy says, “the easy part.

These doctors already know how to provide family planning and post-abortion care [from SAFPAC], so it’s not hard to teach them the rest. They should also know where to refer patients for psychosocial support and how to collect evidence for prosecution so the perpetrator can be held accountable.

So far, Jimmy and his team have offered these trainings to doctors in 152 health facilities and to more than 1000 community health workers. In the future, he hopes to strengthen the referral links between clinical services and law enforcement, and between clinical services and local organizations providing support to victims of gender-based violence.

Jimmy is resolute in his commitment. “We will keep fighting. We have no choice.

For more on CARE’s SAFPAC project, visit our project page. For more on how you can support CARE’s efforts to fight gender-based violence, visit careaction.org.

How Smart Phones are Fueling Sexual Violence in DRC

Two words any smart phone user fears: Low Battery. But what if each time we powered up our smart phones, the power of a child who helped to make our devices was taken away? That is the sacrifice that children such as 4-year-old Monica make in the Cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she searches for minerals used to create Lithium-ion batteries.

Exposure to sexual violence and dangerous working conditions are more than just side effects of the demand for smart devices, they reveal a public health crisis powered by international enterprise, armed conflict, and modern day slavery.

According to UNICEF, 40,000 children work in Cobalt mines in the southern Katanga province of the DRC. Unable to attend school, these child laborers are exposed to violence and little-known Cobalt Lung, a potentially fatal disease caused by inhaling hard metal debris.

But what if merely living near a mine increased a girl’s chances of being sexually assaulted? A recent study revealed, “In the Kivus and Maniema, the risk of experiencing non-partner sexual [violence] is particularly high for women that live close to a mine with the presence of an armed actor.” This is the cost of Cobalt.

While job responsibilities are clearly divided between girls and boys, with boys working deep in the mines and girls breaking rocks and sifting through minerals by hand, the rescue efforts that could save these children are gendered, too. It has been brought to the attention of the World Trade Organization “that girls are rarely rescued as they play the multiple roles of scouts, porters, sexual slaves and soldiers.”

You may be surprised to learn that one electric car requires approximately 10-20 pounds of Cobalt. In an effort to cut costs, some companies are shifting towards working with deregulated suppliers. Deregulated mining operations pose the greatest risks to children, as they do not enforce minimum standards or impose safety requirements.

However, with pressure mounting from International Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), several tech companies have pledged to remove child labor from their supply chains. Companies’ responses to supply chain inquiries have been published by the Washington Post, so that we, as conscious consumers, can determine whether we stand behind their corporate ethics.

Discussions between the International Labor Organization and the Congolese government have yielded new commitments to upholding the minimum working age of 15, as outlined in ILO Convention No. 138. The next steps: implementation and ongoing enforcement of international law. Meanwhile, many NGOs and regional partners are continuing to develop comprehensive programs to provide education and vocational training to survivors.

What else can we do as smart device users?

  • Use the hashtag #NotInMyPhone to support Amnesty International’s campaign and ongoing investigations into Cobalt mining practices.
  • Host a screening of the free documentary Maisha: A New Life Outside the Mines

Women in the DR Congo: Standing in Solidarity

Before I went to the DR Congo, I knew the eastern part of the country as the rape capital of the world. The armed conflicts of the 1990s and the continued social and political unrest created an atmosphere where sexual violence emerged as a norm. One estimate is that 48 women are raped an hour.

I couldn’t get my mind off of the rape statistics- and who could? But working with a group of university women in the eastern DR Congo, I learned that mass rape is one symptom of an overarching sexual inequality so powerful, persistent and invasive that it is written into the legal and social fabric of the society.

According to the DR Congo Family Code, dowry is a condition for marriage. With dowry, often a woman’s humanity is secondary to money and material items. Some sources estimate that 25,000 women are killed or severely injured globally in conflicts over dowry. Child marriage also persists in the DR Congo. Although the legal marriage age for women is 18, girls can marry at the age of 15 with parental consent. Parental consent translates to the forced marriage of girls before they are able to give their own free, prior and fully informed consent to a decision that impacts every aspect of their lives. According to the UNFPA, in the DR Congo two out of five girls will marry before their 18th birthday.

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

The Family Code directly states that a wife “may not exercise the role of head of the family.” A married woman needs her husband’s permission to access contraception, get a job and open a bank account. The women I worked with told me stories about sexual harassment in universities and workplaces. When I asked them about contraception, many had not heard of it. Family planning was more familiar, but, as they pointed out, a man’s decision.

A social structure that subordinates and silences half of the population cannot last.

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

“It’s time,” one student told me, “that we stop believing that we can’t. Because we can.” Young women in the DR Congo are tired of relinquishing their agency and autonomy to the patriarchy. They are starting to organize locally. More and more woman are participating in the controversial group La Lucha, which aims for grassroots social, political and economic change. When women participate in grassroots reform, policy reform reflects their views and not just that of their male counterparts.

Men want change too. Last year, two dozen Congolese men started V-Men which, inspired by V-Day and the mass movement to end violence against women, fights for women’s rights. These men realize that their dignity is impacted when they must give consent for their wives to work. They understand that their humanity suffers when women can’t plan their pregnancies and when children marry. We must come to realize that, regardless of how far away from these problems we live, our humanity is impacted too.

Global outcry can support local change. We can support equality in the DR Congo by showing we are as appalled by the social inequality that permits mass rape as we are by mass rape itself. We can raise our voices along with the voices of the young women and men in the DR Congo. Standing in solidarity means supporting change.

Sexual Violence in Conflict

Strong Women
Photo: Courtney Wenduki (Creative Commons licensing)

Violence against women is a global issue and constitutes various human rights violations. Annually, the 25th of November marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and this special day also marks the beginning of the global campaign – 16 Days of Activism. The theme for this year’s campaign, “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence against Women” highlights the impact of militarization and sexual violence during conflict. During armed conflict it is now said that it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier, due to the strategy of sexual violence as a weapon of war. The Rwandan genocide memorial notes that 500,000 women were raped during 100 days of conflict (IPU, 2008).

The consequences of sexual violence are devastating and destroy whole communities, ripping through the fabric of humanity.

As we witnessed, World AIDS Day, December 1st, also served as a reminder of the millions of women and girls who have been infected through rape in conflict. Many women and girls are subjected to rape including gang rape, forced marriages with enemy soldiers, sexual slavery, and other forms of violence (being forced to witness others being raped, mutilations, etc.). Many have fled their homes, have lost their families and livelihoods, and may have little or no access to health care. All these factors create conditions in which women’s and girls’ vulnerability to HIV is disproportionately increased.

Sexual violence is a security, public health and human rights issue and the horrific physical, emotional and psychological damage and suffering of sexual violence in each country is unique.

In Syria for instance, the threat of sexual violence was a major contributor to displacement as families fled in an attempt to get girls and women safe. As I wrote previously in a blog about Syria women and girls continue to suffer indiscriminately through war and conflict as brutal killings, rape and sexual assault and harassment destroy the fabric of families and whole communities. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that rape and sexual assault are now being used as a weapon of war in Syria. Unfortunately, this had the unintended consequence of early and forced marriages as parents married their daughters off to older men in an attempt to keep them safe.

Over the course of 2013, various global commitments have been made to eradicate sexual violence in all circumstances with a strong focus on sexual violence in conflict. The G8 Foreign Ministers’ pledged to work to eradicate sexual violence in conflict and develop an international protocol on the investigation and documentation of rape and other forms of sexual violence in conflict. Furthermore, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2106 to strengthen efforts to end impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence and during the 68th UN General Assembly 137 countries endorsed the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, proposed by the UK government.

But is this enough, what’s next? How do these Declarations and Resolutions translate to the women and girls, men and boys on the ground?

In the Congo alone, tens of thousands of women and girls have been the victims of sexual violence. Militias use rape as a weapon of war, destroying communities and in many cases even the police and security forces who are supposed to protect civilians are perpetrators themselves. This is a global scenario as testimonies of rape and sexual assault by protectors such as police and aid workers particularly in refugee camps are tragically common.  As many as 64,000 women and children were raped and sexually assaulted in Sierra Leone, over 40,000 during the Bosnia and Herzegovina war, 4,500 in a single province in the Congo in just six months and everyday hundreds of women and children are raped in Darfur.

These are not just the acts of individual soldiers, but organised military operations.

Fortunately, there are organisations working in partnership with governments, local communities, legislators, victims/survivors and perpetrators to eradicate sexual violence and bring about healing and justice. For example, Raise Hope For Congo– a campaign of the Enough Project organisation which aims to end genocide and crimes against humanity- is addressing sexual violence in conflict at the root cause. The campaign supported by the US Government has four key objectives:

  1. Increase prevention of and protection against Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGVB) for vulnerable populations.
  2. Reduce impunity for perpetrators of SGBV.
  3. Improve the capacity of the security sector to address SGBV.
  4. Increase access to quality services for survivors of SGBV.

Although, there are mountains to climb to achieve peace with real justice in this world, we can each start by raising our voices for the voiceless. Sexual violence in conflict is a crime against humanity that for too long the world has been silent about and neglected the millions of women, girls, men and boys who have been victims.

Now is the time to act.

Take Action!

7 in 10 women and girls are victims of violence

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Around the world people are coming together to take a stand and say NO to violence against women. In Malmö, Sweden, a peaceful protest against violence against women was organized by several organizations active in the region to support women who have been victims to domestic and gender-based violence.

I was invited to speak on behalf of Girls’ Globe, and here is what I had to say on this day:

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Violence against women is a violation of women’s human rights.

It is one of the world’s most neglected public health issues, and one of the world’s largest socioeconomic problems. And violence against women is the strongest form of discrimination against women.

According to UN Women, 7 out of 10 women and girls are victims of violence sometime in their lifetime.

And violence occurs in many different forms.

It is estimated that a majority of the world’s women will be a violated by a partner some time during their lives. Domestic violence often takes place behind closed doors and it is difficult for society to pin down, and it becomes even more difficult when it is not considered to be a crime. Today, 603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not a crime and therefore not punishable. This violence becomes even more dangerous when there are weapons in the home, as these weapons increase the risk that women and children are threatened, injured and even killed. Many legal reforms are required to criminalize domestic violence and stop the spread of weapons that pose a danger to women and children.

Of the cases of abuse against women in Sweden and many other countries is usually the perpetrator known by the victim, and very often in a close relationship. Furthermore, there is a great number of unreported cases as many do not report because of fear, stigma or shame.

Violence against women is also used in wars and conflicts as a tactic of war.

Last week I met with a surgeon who has been working in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where war has raged for almost 20 years. He told me that every morning when he came to the clinic where he worked, there was around 20 women waiting to get help after being raped during the previous night. Some of these women were raped with weapons such as knives and guns. The brutal violence against women occurring in eastern Congo is a war tactic. Sexual violence has been recognized by the UN as a strategy in war that occurs in many conflicts around the world. It is a way to paralyze and destroy resistance groups, a method of producing fear in an entire community. Today, it can be more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in war and conflict. Sexual violence is a major barrier to women’s security and participation in peace processes. Even when the conflict ends sexual violence continues to occur at very high rates.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is called the rape capital of the world and is one of the most dangerous places to be a woman.

Violence is also used by states and state actors to achieve political goals, where the perpetrators believe they can use violence with impunity.

An example of this is how women demonstrating during Egypt’s revolution, were subjected to “virginity tests” by the military as a way to scare women and expose them to stigmatization. In many countries the police becomes an additional threat to women. There are many examples where the police chooses not to intervene because they do not believe that violence against women is an offense.

In many parts of the world women are systematically discriminated against in society. Girls are not allowed the same education as boys, they may not have the same access to health care and food, and most often just because they are girls. In some parts of the world women suffer acid attacks, honor violence, or life-threatening genital mutilation because of the invisible rules that govern in society.

In many parts of the world girls do not dare to go to school because they are afraid of being exposed to violence. In some countries, sexual violence is used by teachers in exchange for good grades. In Togo 16 percent of school children say that a teacher has done a classmate pregnant. And 75 percent of school children in Ghana say that teachers are the main cause of violence in schools. Because of the long road that girls have to go to school early in the morning and the long way home in the evening is a great risk that they become vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence along the way. This increases the discrimination against girls in many parts of the world. When girls do not have the opportunity to go to school, it contributes to poverty and it paralyzes society.

I met another surgeon from Uganda. He is working to repair the girls and women who have suffered obstructed labor as they do not have access to any form of maternal or emergency obstetric care. These women develop a fistula, an internal injury that leaves women incontinent. The leak urine and feces, and usually have lost their child in the prolonged labor. Even though this horrifying injury can be prevented with access to care, and although the damage can be repaired, most women do not receive help. They are often ostracized from their family, ostracized by society and become victims of violence and discrimination within and outside the home just because they have become physically disabled and they smell bad.

Every two minutes a woman dies in the world during pregnancy and childbirth. The majority of these deaths can be prevented if women were given access to care in time. For every woman who dies, there are 20 others who are so severely injured that they will not be able to live their lives as prior to the pregnancy.

In Pakistan, there is a saying:

“To raise a daughter is like watering a flower in your neighbor’s garden.”

Girls are considered a burden on the family and a family should not rejoice when having a daughter.

The desire to have a son, and the idea that a boy is worth more than a girl, leads to an incredible amount of problems in society. In India it is illegal for a doctor or nurse to tell expectant parents the sex of the fetus. This is because couples choose to do selective abortion of girls, as the desire to have a son is so strong. In some parts of South Asia, this has led to the existence of a deficit of girls. The deficit of women leads to an incredible number of social problems. The sex trade is flourishing in Mumbai and trafficking across borders continues to grow.

Not to prioritize women in society is a form of violence against women’s human rights. If they are not regarded as equal citizens, their lives will not be worth saving and the fact that they are beaten, mentally abused, discriminated, raped and devalued will never be noticed.

Social norms, culture or tradition can not continue to be a defense of the violence that occurs against women.

Violence against women is not just a weapon used by men to show power, but entire communities enhance and constitute violence against women, as perpetrators are not brought to justice, as women who are victims of violence are also exposed to shame and guilt, and as the essential care a woman needs in her life is not given to her.

What if we could live in a world where a girl is worth as much as a boy

– where she receives an education, has the mobility, can own assets and land, and has access to the same care as boys and men. What if we could live in a world where women are aware of their human rights and where women were always valued as highly as men.

We all, women and men, have to smash preconceptions with facts. We need to educate politicians, police, hospital staff, and all other social actors so that they can respond to abused women in a positive way. We need to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. We must stand together FOR women in our country and around the world.

We shape our society and we shape our world!

Let’s get out of our comfort zones and take responsibility for the society we are building. Let’s stand up against violence against women. Together we can stop it!

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How are you saying NO to violence against women?

Want to read more? Here are a few links:

These are the organizations behind the event in Malmö today: