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Introduction to Reintegration

Walter James | Posted October 4th, 2011 | Africa

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For survivors, the experience of sexual violence causes painful and often chronic physical problems, including (but not limited to) STDs, fistulas, irregular bleeding, and chronic abdominal pain.  However, perhaps an even more distressing outcome of rape in the Congo is the social stigmatization that survivors of sexual violence endure at the hands of their families and communities.  Attitudes towards survivors of sexual violence are quite indicative of the second-class status of women in Congolese society, particularly in underdeveloped, rural areas such as Fizi Territory.

After having suffered from an act of sexual violence, oftentimes a survivor will be banished from her family and derided by her community.  The husband of a survivor may expel her from the home, leaving her without support, kinship, or protection.  A survivor will be labeled (quite erroneously) as the “wife of the soldiers” or a “prostitute”, and openly mocked or shunned.  Thus, the post-rape social ramifications in Fizi Territory are devastating for survivors, especially in a society that places a premium on social interaction.  The shame and rejection may prevent a survivor from participating in income-generating activities (agriculture, commerce), and oftentimes will prevent her from seeking assistance.

SOS FED staff work very hard at encouraging survivors to come to SOS FED for assistance, and work with civil, traditional, and religious authorities to find survivors in the area who need assistance.  Once a survivor has entered a SOS FED center, she can receive group therapy and individual counseling sessions, as well as participate in group income-generating activities that also teach risk-reduction behavior.

However, what happens to a woman once she has completed the 3-month course of assistance provided by SOS FED?  Will she be re-accepted by her family and/or community?  The reintegration process, implemented in 2011, addresses this question.  Each SOS FED center has a male reintegration officer, who acts as an advocate for reintegrating beneficiaries.  Thus far, SOS FED has 3 reintegration officers: Luandja Eca Ricardo (Kikonde), M’Munga Selemane (Kazimia), and Lubunga Wilondja (Mboko).

The reintegration officer is tasked with breaking down the misconceptions about survivors of sexual violence within Congolese society, at least to the point where a survivor is able to rejoin her family and resume her life.  The reintegration meets with the family, in particular the husband, of the soon-to-be reintegrated beneficiary.  The reintegration officer educates the family on the rights of survivors of sexual violence, breaks down the myth that the survivor is to blame for the rape, and tries to convince them to re-accept the survivor back into the family.

The reintegration officer works very closely with the mwami to achieve these goals.  The mwami is a traditional position of authority, also known as the chef coutumiere.  The mwami/chef coutumiere is a hereditary position, passed down from father to son.  A mwami may have a constituency ranging from a village, a quartier, or an entire town.  While having no civil or state authority, traditional authorities are still regarded as important figures in Congolese society.  Ordinary citizens often consult a mwami for counsel on important decisions, the resolution of disputes, or just for simple advice.  State authorities often have to work with the cooperation of the mwami in order to carry out state business.

As a person of authority who is respected by the community, the counsel of a mwami can go a long way in assisting with the integration process.  Before beginning reintegration efforts in a village/town, SOS FED reintegration officers have several meetings with the local mwami to educate them on the principles of reintegration and to gain their support and trust for the reintegration process.  Including the mwami in the reintegration process also helps educate the community at large about the rights of survivors of sexual violence.

SOS FED reintegration officers accompany reintegrating women, often over great distances, to their home villages.  Reintegrating beneficiaries are encouraged to continue the risk-reduction activities they learned at the SOS FED center, as well as disseminate this information among their friends and neighbors.

The success of the reintegration process is quite evident.  According to all three reintegration officers, there has only been one case where a woman was abandoned by her husband after reintegration was carried out.  As of the end of the month of September, 21 beneficiaries have been reintegrated from Kikonde/Kazimia, and 19 beneficiaries have been reintegrated from Mboko.

My next few blog entries will be profiles of several people from in/near Mboko who are involved in the reintegration process: 2 former SOS FED beneficiaries and 2 mwami working closely with SOS FED.

SOS FED beneficiary in Mboko
SOS FED beneficiary in Mboko

SOS FED beneficiary in Mboko

New study on rape in the DRC

Walter James | Posted May 12th, 2011 | Africa

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Here is a link to the NY Times article on a study soon to be published by the American Journal of Public Health on the prevalence of rape in the DRC:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/12/world/africa/12congo.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss

Good News

Walter James | Posted March 5th, 2011 | Africa

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Good news:
Colonel Kibibi Mutware, the ex-CNDP Amani Leo commander who led his troops on a rape and pillaging spree in Fizi town on New Years Day, has been found guilty by a military court of crimes against humanity, and has been sentenced to 20 years in prison.
According to the BBC, this is the first time a commanding officer of a FARDC unit has been convicted of rape. This hopefully sets a precedent that will hold commanding officers accountable, and will therefore be reflected in the actions of their subordinates. This by no means signals the end to mercenary-like behavior on the part of the Congolese military, but perhaps the higher-ups in the military are starting to pay attention due to increased scrutiny. This will be especially interesting due to the number of rebel “armies” that are currently being incorporated into the FARDC; creating a trained, well-behaved military out of so many different factions will be quite the feat. Here’s hoping for the best.
The military court in Baraka also convicted 8 more soldiers under Col. Kibibi’s command, including 3 officers, and gave them sentences ranging from 10 to 20 years. However, the heavier sentences went to the officers, possibly again signaling to FARDC commanders that they need to be responsible for the behavior of their units.
An unusual aspect of the trial was the willingness of many of the survivors to testify against their attackers; forty-nine women stepped forward to give testimony in court.

Mass Rape in Fizi

Walter James | Posted January 26th, 2011 | Africa

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A fight breaks out in a bar in the dark of the night in the town of Fizi, deep in the territory that bears the same name. The argument is between a civilian and a soldier of the 43rd Sector, over a woman. In the resulting melee, the soldier shoots the civilian. This sets off a riot, and an angry crowd lynches the soldier in public.

News of the lynching reaches the troops of the 43rd Sector. To “avenge” their fallen comrade, a group of soldiers descended upon Fizi for a massive campaign of rape and destruction. So far, 50 cases have been confirmed, but as more people return the official number is expected to climb. The real number is probably much higher, since many women will not report that they have been violated.

The 43rd Sector is part of Amani Leo (“Peace Now”), a military operation charged with dealing once and for all with the marauding FDLR rebels who continue to ravage the Kivus. Their commander, Lt. Colonel Kibibi Mutware is a former CNDP rebel who was integrated into the FARDC as the result of a 2009 peace agreement. He commands a group of Kinyarwanda-speaking Banyamulenge troops, often resented because of the role of their ethnic group in the Rwandan invasion of Eastern Congo.
Lt. Col. Kibibi claims that the perpetrators of this mass rape were soldiers disobeying orders to stay on base. However, as the people of Fizi recounted the horror they survived, it became clear that more than a few witnessed Lt. Col. Kibibi urging his soldiers to attack the people of Fizi, directing them in committing unspeakable acts of violence. These accusations were serious enough to be included in a UN report on the Fizi mass rape. Also, it is not the first time that Lt. Col. Kibibi has been accused of human rights abuses.

It is a well-documented phenomenon when FARDC military commanders spur their troops to ravage the very citizens they are sworn to protect, and the latest incident in Fizi is quite possibly another instance of such a sickening perversion.

MONUSCO troops now patrol Fizi town in order to maintain order, and a Congolese military spokesman has stated that all who were responsible for the carnage have been arrested. The Congolese military supposedly has a “zero-tolerance” policy towards human rights abuses, and yet it begs the question why something this massive and atrocious occurred in the first place.

The general apathy of the Congolese government and the international community towards human rights abuses committed by the FARDC is bearing bitter fruit. Human rights training, reprimands, and the removal of some commanders who condone rape have not been extensive enough to cut away the cancer that plagues the Congolese military. Amani Leo is quickly becoming a joke at the expense of the people of Eastern Congo.

When does this end?

Return

Walter James | Posted December 5th, 2010 | Africa, Uncategorized

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Kitagi miyazi, rafiki yangu.  So, I am headed back to the Congo.  After three months of documenting and reporting on the work of several civil society organizations, I left Uvira in August 2009 with a bad case of dysentery.  However, the violence and oppression in Eastern Congo has never been far from my mind.  I have tried to keep track of the human rights situation in the region, and now I am presented with the opportunity to work with SOS Femmes en Danger, a courageous local NGO based in South Kivu province that assists survivors of sexual violence.  Over the summer of 2009 Ned Meerdink and I produced a mini-documentary that showed the importance of SOS FED’s work.  Now, The Advocacy Project, SOS FED, and Zivik are embarking on an ambitious risk-reduction campaign, helping women decrease the probability of attack and enslavement.  Ned Meerdink has been laying down the groundwork for this project for months, and now I will be switching spots with him for about 12 months or so.

Here are some news articles and reports that give some background on the current situation in the Congo:

-UN peacekeepers ‘failed’ DR Congo rape victims

BBC News article on Atul Khare’s report to the UN Security Council on shortcomings of UN peacekeepers in preventing sexual violence committed by the FDLR, highlighted by the August 2010 mass rape in Luvungi.

__________________________________________________________ Read the rest of this entry »

Visit to SOS Femmes en Danger in Mboko

Walter James | Posted August 3rd, 2009 | Africa

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The women at the SOS FED center in Mboko
The women at the SOS FED center in Mboko

The women at the SOS FED center in Mboko

SOS Femmes en Dangers (SOS FED) is a local organization in South Kivu whose mission is to help women who have been victims of sexual violence.  On July 29th Ned and I had the opportunity to visit SOS FED’s refuge center in Mboko, deep in Fizi Territory.  The center is for women who have been victims of sexual violence at the hands of the roving bands of soldiers that infest the jungles of Fizi.  The services that the center provides are simple, but women who go there are given a safe place to recover from the physical and mental trauma of their experience.

In the Congo, soldiers of all affiliations use sexual violence against women to terrorize the population into submission.  After a woman has been violated, she will often find herself ostracized by her community and rejected by her family.  In addition to the obstacles to reintegration, she may often suffer from any number of health problems stemming from physical and sexual abuse, including severe genital mutilation.

Soldiers will also abduct women and hold them as virtual slaves in military camps in “the bush”.  The women are subjected to constant physical and sexual abuse, and may be kept for as long as three years.  If a woman has had children in the bush, they are often killed before she is released.

The SOS FED field center gives women who have been violated a safe place to stay and recover.  When I visited, there were eighteen women living at the center.  One of them had just come out of the bush five days ago; she was only 19, but already had had three children by soldiers.  There are only two big bedrooms at the center, so the women are stacked nine to a room.  Some of the women are bedridden due to illness.  The center is low on food and medicine.

Along with SOS FED staff member Amisi Munga, Ned and I recorded the testimony of four of the women.  We also interviewed the site director, a tall, austere woman named Mariamu “Marie” Bashishibe.  Marie talked at length about the suffering of these women.  Marie told us about the fates of those who cannot stay at the center; the capacity of the center is very small, and therefore it can barely make a dent in helping the hundreds of women who are victimized each year.  These women in Fizi Territory can expect to receive no assistance from the government; in fact, many of them have been victimized by soldiers of their own government, and not just by militia or invading rebels from Rwanda and Burundi.

Despite the suffering they had endured, these women demonstrated enormous strength and courage.  I was moved by the fact that they were very open to telling their stories on camera.  They asked us to take their pictures.  Their hospitality was unparalleled; they prepared for us a large feast of rice, beans, and fish, and before I left Marie presented me with a chicken as a gift from the women.

Right now, we are working on completely translating the interviews with the women from Kibembe so we can get a clearer picture of their experiences.  Today there is no justice for them, but hopefully by giving them a voice, someone out there will listen.

(l-r) Amisi, Walter, Marie, and Karl the chicken
(l-r) Amisi, Walter, Marie, and Karl the chicken

(l-r) Amisi, Walter, Marie, and Karl the chicken

Leya: The Ballad of a Village Maiden

Walter James | Posted June 15th, 2009 | Uncategorized

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Leya and her brothers
Leya and her brothers

Leya and her brothers

Meet Leya.  Leya is sixteen years old.  Leya is one of 8 children.  Her father was killed by bandits in his own home; Leya, her mother, and her siblings barely escaped with their lives.  Leya’s mother has remarried, since life for a single woman with children is extremely difficult.  Leya works all day in her stepfather’s rice paddy, then comes home and prepares food for the family.  Leya’s stepfather sends her out to the rice paddy by herself, which means that she is more likely to be kidnapped and raped by rebels or soldiers.  She is three years behind in school.

Recently, a man has noticed Leya in town, and he wants her.  He has entered into negotiations with Leya’s stepfather to marry Leya.  The stepfather wants to marry Leya off because the suitor will have to pay him for Leya’s hand.  In any case, soon the rice harvest will be over, and the stepfather will have little use for Leya.

I first met Leya when I visited her family’s home, set on a wind-swept hillside overlooking the tiny village of Kiliba.  I had come for a weekend visit with her older brother Isidord, who lives in Uvira.  When we arrived, Leya’s suitor was sitting and talking with the stepfather.  The suitor appeared to be in his late twenties.  Isidord was furious when he found out that his stepfather was trying to marry Leya off.  In Congolese culture, responsibility for accepting marriage proposals passes to the oldest male sibling in the event the father has died, not the stepfather.  There was one complicating factor: Leya indicated that she would prefer to marry this complete stranger than to continue the miserable work in her stepfather’s rice paddy.

Isidord explained to his family that Leya was only sixteen, hardly a good age to get married to a much-older man. In any case, Isidord said, what kind of grown man is interested in a sixteen-year-old girl?  This suitor cannot be up to much good.  Leya’s suitor also claimed he was a successful businessman.  Isidord pointed out that “businessmen” in this area live a very “fast” life, often having a different woman in every town.  It is also not uncommon for Congolese men to abandon a woman once she becomes pregnant.  If Leya married this man, it would be almost guaranteed that she would become pregnant within a month.  Leya’s older sister Bintu had been abandoned by her “fiancé” once she had become pregnant.  Now Bintu is shamed before the entire village, and she will soon deliver a child the family can barely afford.  Isidord asked Leya if she wanted to end up like her older sister.  Even worse was if Leya left Kiliba to live in another town, became pregnant, and was abandoned by her “husband”; then everyone would think she was a prostitute.  Indeed, many single mothers in the DRC are forced to resort to prostitution, since they are already stigmatized and lack a means of support.

Isidord wanted Leya to return to school and only start thinking about marriage when she reached the proper age.  He explained to Leya that marriage wasn’t the only way out of her current situation, and enduring a few more years in the rice paddy was better than a lifetime of suffering in a marriage to a stranger.  If Leya focused on getting her education, she might be able to make decisions for herself and be able to choose a better husband once she was of age.

Isidord told the suitor that he wanted him to wait for two years until Leya was 18; if he was truly interested, then he would be willing to wait for two years.  Both the stepfather and the suitor protested, saying that Leya was physically already a woman, and it was about time she got married.  However, Isidord stood firm in his decision.  The suitor left.  Isidord told his sister to resist the advances of men and wait until he got enough money to move her to Uvira so she could start school again.

Back in Uvira, Isidord was still worried.  He told me that his stepfather would be leaving Kiliba for an entire year to sell his rice in another town.  This would leave little support or protection for his mother and siblings.  He also said that the suitor might nevertheless try to get Leya pregnant, by seduction or by force.  Isidord is hoping to save enough money to move his entire family to Uvira once his stepfather leaves.

Leya’s situation is not uncommon in the DRC.  Women have little protection from violence and poverty in the DRC, and thus marriage seems to be a good option that may provide some sort of support and shelter.  However, society is very permissive for men, but restrictive for women.  Thus women often come out on the bottom, abandoned and vulnerable in a dangerous environment.  On the other hand, there are people like Isidord who want to bring equality for women in their society and culture.  In the midst of constant war and upheaval, this is a difficult task.  One hopes that Leya will find a future that is better than the one preordained for her and so many other Congolese girls.

Fellow: Walter James

SOS Femmes en Danger


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