Maria Malele, 20, looks down at her hands while she explains in her native Swahili how she was gang-raped by rebels in her home in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), six months ago.
“I had returned home in the morning from our hiding spot in the forest to get some food. Two rebels entered the house and two stayed outside, they asked me, ‘where’s your husband’ and I said ‘he’s not here’, and then they grabbed me, threw me to the ground and raped me. I tried to fight them off but they were much bigger than me and I was nine months pregnant. So, I couldn’t and three of them raped me. All of this time my child was sitting next to me crying and calling for his dad.”
When they left, Malele was left bleeding and semi-conscious on the floor of her home. Shortly after, she went into labour with her husband and child at her side. She gave birth to a stillborn baby.
Half a year may have passed since her rape, but for Malele, the pain has not gone away. She lost her child, her strength, her dignity and potentially her husband and livelihood.
Malele is from the mineral rich region of Shabunda in South Kivu Province, Eastern DRC. For years, the bodies of women in Eastern DRC have provided the battleground for armed groups.
Rape is a cheap, effective and easy weapon used by foreign and local armed groups, as well as the Congolese national army. During the 20 years of fighting in DRC, hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped. On average more than 1,500 women are raped every month by armed groups in Eastern DRC and increasingly by civilians, as rape has become a rule and not the exception.
“As soon as an armed group considers that the civilian population it is confronted with is against its presence, it will commit crimes against it, including sexual violence. It is a form of terrorism that is employed by armed groups, specifically in areas where there is no authority,” says Aziza Aziz-Suleimani, of the United Nations Population Fund, the UN agency tasked with mapping sexual violence in DRC.
Armed groups rape women to terrorise populations, force them to flee, control them, and to punish them for alleged support of the enemy. These rapes are often extremely violent. Women are tortured, gang raped, and mutilated by perpetrators. Often they are left disabled for life.
“We receive women who have been raped, some by two, three, even ten rapists. We have cases where women have been raped vaginally, anally, orally, and then some are forced to have sex with their children, even their grandparents. There are others that are taken to the forest and tortured. We see the signs from their torture, marks from being tied up, burnt and even cut repeatedly by machete,” says Esther Munyerekana Nakashunjwe, a nurse at the Panzi hospital.
Adophine Mwanza, is 48-years-old. Like Maria she was also attacked in Shabunda.
“I was tilling the field when four combatants approached me and told me they were going to kill me. I said, ‘please don’t kill me, I’m like your mother, I have children like you,’ but they didn’t listen and one after the other they raped me.”
The widespread and systematic use of rape as a weapon of war by armed groups has led to a multitude of physical, psychological, socio-economic and socio-cultural effects. Physically, women can catch sexually transmitted infections, HIV and AIDS, fall pregnant, or suffer from fistulas or other complications from violent sexual acts.
Since being raped Malele suffers from a severe fistula. Despite two reconstructive surgeries her incontinence continues.
“The doctors told me I have two holes, so it going to take longer,” she says.
Psychologically women who have been raped are more likely to become substance abusers or develop depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress.
“The women that come here are traumatised, they feel rejected, like that have no value, they are ashamed, embarrassed and often will isolate themselves,” says Munyerekana Nakashunjwe.
According to Aziz-Suleimani, the number of rapes in Eastern DRC could be much higher, as many cases go unreported due to the stigma, shame and fear. Women who have been raped run the risk of being rejected by their husband and family.
“Socially, a woman who has been raped is victimised two times. She is considered as an adulterer, and if she is not abandoned by her husband she can be asked to pay a fine by her husband because she had sexual relations with another man, even though it was out of rape.”
After crawling to her home, Mwanza was abandoned by her husband, her child and her community.
Malele tells me she was lucky because her husband did not leave her after she was raped, but it has now been six months since she has seen him and she is beginning to doubt their marriage.
“I’m worried now that he’s left me because the whole time I’ve been here, he has never come to see me. During both of my surgeries he never came so maybe he’s left me without telling me. Before I go back, I would like to find out.”
Without a husband, a woman’s future is bleak in Eastern DRC. A woman’s cultural, social and economic worth is determined by her husband and without one, particularly in the countryside, she will face considerable hardship.
In June 2008, the UN Security Council demanded “the immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians,” and called for sex crimes to be exempt from any amnesty provisions within peace agreements.
Despite Resolution 1820 and the inclusion of rape as a war crime and crime against humanity in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, rape continues unabated in Eastern DRC.
“Every day we receive new cases, it never ends” says Munyerekana Nakashunjwe dishearteningly.
Tanya Castle is a Canadian journalist based in the DRC. Th This article is part of a special series on the 16 Days of Activism for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news. For more information on the 16 Days Campaign go to www.genderlinks.org.za