We didn’t think we’d be back here so soon. It has only been 15 weeks since we last left eastern Congo in November 2009. This time, we’ve come back with a broader coalition of funders, spearheaded by Ben Affleck, to launch our collaborative Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI). Jewish World Watch was invited to join Affleck’s ECI as a founding member. ECI aims to help the victims of violence and support the Congolese people in rebuilding their civil society—a society that values the safety and security of all of its members—including women and children.
Almost six million people have died in Congo — from violence and massacres, from constant displacement, from disease, from hunger. Sexual violence against women and girls is epidemic; grotesque exploitation of children is common. When we were here in November, we wrote extensively about the rape — the total destruction — of the women of Congo. We invite you to return to those blogs, they are as relevant today as they were in November. Since we wrote those words, hundreds of additional women and girls have been brutally violated. Indeed, it is impossible to visit Eastern Congo and not be confronted in the most profound and disturbing way with the unspeakable acts committed against Congo’s women and girls.
Many of the projects that we visited with ECI work to heal women’s bodies and spirits in the wake of sexual violence. But more importantly, the Congolese leaders creating and implementing these projects have committed to a more systemic healing by empowering and training Congolese women. Strengthening women helps to restore and reconstruct the whole of Congolese society and highlights Congo’s most important resource — its incredible people.
There is a culture of impunity here in Congo, a total lack of accountability for rapists, the overwhelming majority of whom are men in uniform. The judicial system is extremely weak, where it has a foothold at all. There are few prisons. If and when a rapist is prosecuted, and even if he is convicted, he is unlikely to serve time. Widespread corruption and a fear of retribution have created an environment in which very few women will actually report rape. It’s a harsh paradox: until large numbers of complaints are filed and voices are raised about the culture of impunity, there will be no movement towards creating a more accountable justice system. It takes an exceptionally brave Congolese woman to take on this conundrum by filing a rape complaint.
Even more courageous are the women who dedicate themselves each and every day to the painstaking work with rape victims: encouraging them to file complaints against their rapists, holding their hands every step of the way as they pursue their “rights.”(Thanks to the bravery and advocacy demonstrated in the last year or two, the rights of women do now actually exist in the Congolese laws and constitution.)
On this trip, we met Justine, an exceptional Congolese woman who runs an impressive women’s consortium in Goma. Among other services, the center provides legal advocacy for rape victims. Some months ago, Justine assisted two women in filing a complaint against their rapists at the International Criminal Court. Within days of the filing, armed and uniformed men came to Christine’s home. Justine was not there, but her two sons and two daughters were home. The men attacked her children, severely beat her sons and one of her daughters — her other daughter was stabbed in her rectum. Justine’s trauma and that of her family, however, did not deter her; indeed, it increased her resolve. She moved her children to safe(r) spaces and resumed her work, which now (horribly) included filing battery claims for her own children.
Without courageous women like Justine, without the women’s center which she directs and the women who are willing to show such bravery and sacrifice in pursuing justice where there may currently be none, there would be no hope for a future in which the rule of law matters in Congo. These women will eventually prevail in changing Congo…it is already happening in small, but very important increments.
We visited a women’s center in Bunia, where the incidence of rape is particularly high and the ravages of war are particularly gruesome. While we were there we witnessed a meeting of most of the twelve female candidates for the local Provincial Council. Currently there is only one woman on the Council; we were told that never before have anywhere near 12 women run for seats on a local Council. It was like witnessing the embryonic stages of the League of Women Voters—Eastern Congo Chapter! Supporting these brave female pioneers, shining a light on them and on the local election is one of many ways that JWW will participate in the process of empowering the women of Eastern Congo. As we continue to digest these experiences and share them with you, we cannot help but think about the thread of courage, faith, sacrifice and resolve that binds freedom fighters throughout time and space; from Moses to Rosa Parks, from Gandhi to Hannah Senesh, from Cesar Chavez to the tens of thousands of Soviet Jewish refuseniks, from Justine in Goma to the women candidates in Bunia and the women willing, almost futilely for now, to pursue their rapists in Bukavu. In all of these cases, potential severe adverse personal consequences were disregarded in favor of a bigger more transcendent purpose. In each of these cases, each person chose to face, and some actually encountered, loss of liberty, life or limb in pursuing their struggle. And, because of each of their courageous acts, the world is a different place.
Our mission in Congo is to support and nurture such courage; paramount in our work is our role as advocates. We must take all steps to shine the brightest possible light on Eastern Congo so that the horrible violence and abuses, as well as the impunity, are shown to the world. With your help and energy we will be part of a new Congo—where the rule of law protects the people from abuse, and where the presence of Godliness comes out of the shadows and into full glory.