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"I can't remember how many times I was raped" - Congolese women's rights activist

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 2 Jun 2014 08:00 GMT
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Victims of sexual violence in a hospital in eastern Congo, September 6, 2007. Women are housed and treated for rape-related injuries and illnesses. REUTERS/James Akena
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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It was five in the morning when Congolese police came to arrest Faith, beating her small children with their guns and leading her husband outside, never to be seen again.

A women's rights activist, Faith had organised protests condemning President Joseph Kabila's government for its failure to prevent sexual violence in Democratic Republic of Congo.

"You are talking about rape, now we'll show you what rape means," the police officers told Faith, before raping her 15-year-old niece in front of her. They then took Faith to prison where she was raped so many times she lost count.

Faith, 24, was not attacked in Congo's lawless east, widely labelled "the rape capital of the world" for its endemic sexual violence, but in Bas Congo, in the southwest.

Sexual violence in Congo is often regarded as a by product of fighting in the east with atrocities blamed on soldiers and rebels - but rape is also rife beyond the country’s conflict zones, Freedom from Torture said on Monday.

The UK-based charity said rape as a form of torture has been routinely used since 2006 by Congolese security forces, including army and intelligence officers in the capital Kinshasa and elsewhere to punish politically active women.

"I was protesting against rape - I didn't expect to become a victim of it," the charity quoted Faith as saying.

Much of the abuse is taking place in prison or en route to detention, it said, adding that many victims had little hope of obtaining justice due to widespread impunity.

"The soldiers and the prison guards, they don't see women as human beings, they don't see any value in women," Faith said. "I can't even remember how many times I was raped."

PERSECUTORY RAPE

Freedom from Torture, which documents evidence of torture and offers treatment to survivors, based its findings on forensic reports of scars and injuries relating to 34 women aged between 18 and 62.   

More than half of them had been gang-raped, by up to 10 men in some cases, the charity said. In one case alone, it recorded 68 scars on a woman - 56 of them attributable to an incident of gang rape in which she was also tied up, beaten, burned, bitten, stamped on and kicked with heavy boots.

Not only were many women raped vaginally, orally and anally but they were also subjected to beatings with heavy rubber truncheons, military belts with brass buckles and hooks, metal rods, whips and electric cables, the report said.

Six women reported assaults to their genital organs and breasts including having their breasts stabbed, bitten and burned. Fourteen women described being forced into stress positions, including being tied or handcuffed to a chair or post for long periods of time.

Almost all of the women were arrested because either they or a member of their family were involved in political or human rights campaigning. Twenty-six of the women were arrested in Kinshasa, three in Bas Congo and five in the east.

"Their rape is clearly persecutory," said Juliet Cohen, Freedom from Torture's head of doctors, in a statement.

"The brutal and repeated sexual violence these women experience while being held in state facilities is a deliberate attempt to humiliate, punish and control not only these individuals, but also the whole group to which they belong."

As a result of their rape and torture, women reported genito-urinary symptoms such as vaginal and anal bleeding, painful periods, chronic abdominal pain and lower back pain.

Besides the physical damage done to them, survivors often experienced flashbacks, poor sleep, anxiety and panic attacks. Some would "switch off" as a way of coping with the experience and its aftermath.     

"The women know they have little or no chance of redress and describe feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness and despair, which is exactly what the perpetrators intended," Cohen said.

Among its recommendations, Freedom from Torture called on the international community to broaden the focus of its attention to include sexual violence as a form of torture, which has spread outside of conflict zones.

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