The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo
, a film about sexual and gender-based violence (GBV) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), premiered yesterday on HBO. GBV is perhaps nowhere more prevalent than in the war-torn eastern provinces of the DRC, where untold numbers of women and girls—likely in the hundreds of thousands—have been raped, mutilated, and abused. GBV encompasses rape, sexual mutilation, and abduction into sexual slavery, and is often worsened by war and civil strife.
The Wilson Center’s Africa Program and Environmental Change and Security Program, in conjunction with Catholic Relief Services, recently hosted a discussion on GBV in the DRC. Kristin Kim Bart, a gender-based violence program officer at the International Rescue Committee, delivered a powerful presentation that outlined the nature and scope of the problem and offered suggestions for how to address it. She explained, “This rape is not about sexual desire—it is about the domination and decimation of the woman, her family, and entire community. And we have seen that it works as strategy of war again and again, and today in DRC.”
GBV can have severe health consequences, including traumatic fistula, severed limbs, transmission of HIV/AIDS and other diseases, and unwanted pregnancy, but “it is the social and psychological consequences of sexual violence that are sometimes the hardest to overcome,” said Kim Bart. “Survivors are stigmatized, shunned, rejected by their families and communities, and blamed for the violence they suffered.”
Despite this bleak picture, there is hope for women and girls who have suffered from GBV. NGOs like CARE and the International Rescue Committee have become increasingly active in providing health, psychological, and economic assistance to survivors, and governments and other donors have begun to make funding these services a higher priority. In addition, Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) and Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) recently introduced the International Violence Against Women Act, which would make the prevention of violence against women a key priority in U.S. foreign assistance.
“The silver lining of this is that conflict opens a door to address and discuss what is usually a totally taboo subject,” said Kim Bart in an email to the New Security Beat. “And with the proper resources and technical expertise, we see small changes resulting from our work over time. We have witnessed communities begin to recognize the violence women and girls are facing [and] local health professionals treating survivors with care and compassion.”