The eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo has been experiencing cyclical wars since 1996, when the so-called war of liberation began. The fighting started in South Kivu Province and spread throughout the whole country, then called Zaire, until Mobutu Sese Seko, the Congolese dictator, was toppled less than a year later.
Since then, repeated fighting has engulfed the entire eastern part of the country. Millions of people have been killed and several hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped, atrocities that continue today. Some researchers say that 48 women are raped every hour in Congo. This suggests that 12 percent of the women in the country have been victims of rape at one time in their lives. These women get pregnant and give birth to children who have no fathers. The number of children born in these conditions is not apparently known, but some statistics suggest they are in the thousands in South Kivu alone. In Congo, abortion is illegal, and the religious beliefs of most people do not allow women and girls to abort.
The women and girls who are raped suffer morally and physically. The men who rape them often do so several times on the same day or on different occasions, while other victims are raped once or twice. In general, rape is not done by the same fighters; they rape a woman and then take her to their mates in the bush to rape her, too. Other women are raped but escape; most of them become impregnated or contract sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Once back home, they become the song of the village; everyone points at them, they become ridiculed and shamed. Others are forced to leave their homes and go to unknown places.
The women who give birth often have difficult deliveries, enduring the ordeal in the bush without any medical help or family member to attend to them.
In Congolese villages, the women’s fatherless children are doomed to suffer not only morally but also materially and become a burden and a threat to society. Some become street children, thieves and bandits while others join militias.
It is in this context that Cofapri, or Congolese Females Action for Promoting Rights and Development, is trying to assist some of the children and their mothers. Cofapri is an organization I helped found in Bukavu in South Kivu Province, near the Rwandan border. We work with rural women who are victims of domestic violence and who were raped during the conflicts. Cofapri strongly believes that no society can fully develop if women and girls lag behind men; that is, women who are are discriminated against and abused just because of their gender or origin.
The situation of the women and girls of the region has worsened since the advent of the conflicts, which include the wars that originated from the 1994 Rwanda genocide, when the perpetrators fled to Congo, where they continue to rape women and girls and destroy the environment by poaching protected animals, damaging the forests and smuggling minerals.
The fighters have not only raped innocent women and girls but also mutilated, beaten and killed them. Some of the victims were raped in front of their relatives and parents. Men and boys were not raped by the men rapists; instead, they were either killed or forcibly asked to have sex with their parents or relatives under gunpoint. The people who survived live with terrible wounds that need healing. As sexual issues are taboo in some Congolese cultures, it is difficult for the victims to talk about what they experienced.
Moreover, in Congolese homes, domestic violence toward women and girls is prevalent. Such violence is also promoted by some social and customary beliefs that consider a woman a second-class citizen. The culture of Congo fosters such violence because the abusers are never punished. These are some of the social evils Cofapri is combating.
Cofapri works not only with Congolese women and girls but also with those of the wider Great Lakes Region in central Africa. We believe that education is the key to development and that if girls and boys are educated, the whole nation benefits. We focus more on village women and girls as they are often uninformed of their rights, but city women and girls are not neglected.
We face tremendous challenges. Congolese society is strongly paternalistic; reaching very remote villages is hard because of insecurity and traveling long distances without roads. For the moment, we are short of funds but we are carrying out some income-generating activities to keep going. We have already purchased 4 pigs, 12 rabbits and 2 hives of bees that we’ve distributed to our members, scattered in 12 villages, with each village making a group. Once the animals produce, the young will be shared among group members until everyone has an animal. In the long run, we will have more animals that we can sell to raise money. The bees also will give us honey that we can sell. The money will be used for supporting such activities as sewing, knitting, pot- and bricks-molding, education for children and paying the Cofapri trainers who teach these skills.
We will also use the money to sponsor the education and health care of women and children born of rape and others born from violence in their home. Cofapri is currently sponsoring the education of four young girls, who are excelling at school. We are raising the awareness of women and girls’ plight in eastern Congo and counseling victims of domestic violence as well.
Some of the women who give birth to fatherless children believe that since they are already destitute, there is no way they can feed, clothe or send these children to school, but Cofapri shows them that they should not hate or reject the children, despite the circumstances in which they were conceived. Some of the women do not tell their children how they came to exist. One woman from Cofapri said: “I can’t feel well to tell him about his father because this gives more anger and suffering again; this will make me think the hardship I went through when I was raped and the bad conditions in which I bore this child in my womb and how he was delivered in terrible conditions without any assistance at all, except the will of God. I do not know who impregnated me because they were many to do that to me and on several occasions.
They used to beat me and raped me daily; I felt so ridiculed and downgraded that one day I tried to escape, but unfortunately they caught me again. They wanted to kill me but instead they tortured me a lot; you can even see scars on my leg and others on my thighs and belly.”
She said that a child cannot understand how his mother could be raped. “So to his questions, I divert it and we talk about something else.”
Although the mothers suffer from their children, they also feel comforted by them, especially when they see them playing with others. Sometimes, they forget their problems and everything else when they hug them. This implies that the mothers can accept the children but it comes slowly, only with counseling and support. Intense discrimination in Congo against rape victims and their children also makes bonding a challenge. But many women ultimately embrace their children. As one woman, another member of Cofapri, said: “We didn’t like to be raped and become pregnant; you may want to abort but it is too risky, you can die; then who will be to blame? So we think it is better to keep our babies until we give birth. We must love our children; they are our children in their innocence.”
The mothers learn that schooling is important for the children. Another mother said: “It is better our children learn what we did not study; our days have gone but these children still have many days ahead and they are the future of our country.”
Cofapri is also teaching the mothers about the importance of going to the hospital when they are sick, although in most rural villages, there are no medical centers. The women also learn about AIDS, that it is not a myth but a reality.
Much more needs to be done to help the children of women who have been raped. Otherwise they will be one more casualty in Congolese society.
[This article was updated to reflect a correction: Cofapri is based in South Kivu Province and was never relocated to Rwanda.]