The high incidence of rape in Congo is not just destroying women, but is destroying the nation’s society, said the general secretary of the church’s national justice and peace commission.
In Africa, the woman is “the central and most important guardian of values in society,” said the general secretary, Sister Marie-Bernard Alima, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Kalemie.
Rape is “not just rape,” Sister Marie-Bernard told Catholic News Service in a recent visit to Washington. “It is rape to destroy a person’s dignity” and to “degrade women and to degrade society.”
“The trauma that they are subjected to cripples them in all their activities,” she said.
Sister Marie-Bernard and others admit that the situation is complex.
The United Nations has called Congo the center of rape as a weapon of war, and the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health estimated Congolese women are raped at the rate of nearly one each minute. That same study showed that nearly a quarter of those surveyed had been raped by their spouses or partners.
Sister Marie-Bernard said the rapes started when the war began in 1998, but they continue today, although the war has ended, because smaller, local militias saw that the tactics by soldiers worked. The approach to stopping the rapes “has to be comprehensive,” she said, because the rapes are tied to a web of issues involving power and control.
Studies by the justice and peace commission indicate that, to stop rapes, society must stop the illegal extraction of minerals, especially in the eastern part of the country; resolve the issues of illegal arms; and reintegrate young men into society.
The United Nations has an arms embargo on eastern Congo, but Sister Marie-Bernard said males 16-20 or even younger are able to pretty much do what they want because they have weapons.
Edward Kiely, regional representative for Central and West Africa for Catholic Relief Services, said that “those who exploit the mines are strong because they are armed.” Those who have arms can also kidnap and rape women.
“Youth that are not involved in any activities are easily mobilized for other things,” Kiely said. Sometimes that includes working in illegal mines, he said.
Sister Marie-Bernard said that, when a woman is raped, she is “rejected by her husband and her community.”
“A woman’s intimacy is so central to her identity” that, when she is raped, “she loses confidence in herself because she feels she no longer exists as a woman.”
The justice and peace commission is working on “psycho-social accompaniment” – “accompanying them to help re-establish their self-dignity,” she said. Women are treated as individuals and receive trauma counseling, but also are helped to reintegrate into their communities.
Family-based pastoral care programs help reunite wives with their husbands. Other program components teach literacy and women’s empowerment, and one initiative helps bring together victims and the men who raped them.
“In these interactions, men begin to relearn the true place of women in society,” she said. Women who have been raped actually lead men through the process, she added. The goal is to “re-establish this sense of respect for women.”
Sister Marie-Bernard said that, in one six-month time period, a woman who had been raped learned to read and write and was elected head of her village — including by men who had raped her.
By Barb Fraze, Catholic News Service.