Women’s rights pursued despite threat to lives

‘I was kidnapped three times. Last month I received many calls on the phone, [threatening] that they would attack me, kill me’

HOSPITAL staff and women’s rights advocates are fighting back at the widespread rape perpetrated by armed groups in the eastern Congo.

But workers’ lives are being threatened during attempts to combat brutal attacks against women and children.

Corruption is also commonplace in the justice system, say rights campaigners.

A grassroots organisation called HEAL Africa is trying to change communities from within and help victims of rape, many of whom have suffered appalling attacks and near-death experiences.

The charity’s hospital in Goma treats some of the worst sexual attack cases in the eastern part of the country, where foreign doctors regularly operate on women with fistula — a condition where the vaginal canal has been ruptured by violent rape.

The charity co-operates with 58 clinics throughout the north Kivu province, an area one and half times the size of France.

Many of its adult patients have experienced frightening ordeals, said charity chief co-ordinator Joseph Ciza Nakimina.

“Most of them are traumatised by physical injuries. There are those who were kidnapped for a long time in the bush. And those who have unwanted pregnancies.”

Some victims were injured after guns and sticks were inserted into genital organs.

“These were very, very terrible cases. In other cases, we identify sometimes girls and women who were not only raped, but develop HIV and Aids,” added the charity co-ordinator.

The atrocities have been committed by soldiers from across all the different armed groups included government forces, as well as by civilians, say HEAL Africa.

Since the organisation began operating in 2003, it has identified and treated 16,000 cases of rape. Between January and October this year alone, it has helped 3,089 victims of rape.

“HEAL Africa was among the first organisations which initiated the programme to speak out and, it goes further, because it organises officials to speak to different rebel groups to tell them to stop the violence against women and against children,” said the charity’s Ciza Nakimina.

Nevertheless, despite the public backlash against sexual attacks, similar progress is not being made with the authorities.

Police sometimes arrest rapists, says HEAL Africa, but often attackers are back on the streets within days.

“In the military court, there is a case of one general who raped and killed his victim at the beginning of October. He brought the victim to the hospital himself. I think that maybe he is free today.

“Nobody talked about this case, because he is someone with a high rank in the national army.

“If there is an authority who is implicated in the violence, nobody talks about it. They [the police] know. She [the victim] died from bleeding to death,” said the centre co-ordinator.

Furthermore, HEAL Africa staff who are promoting women and children’s rights are being threatened and targeted.

Mr Nakimina added: “I was kidnapped three times. Last month I received many calls on the phone, [threatening] that they would attack me, kill me.”

This project was funded by the Simon Cumbers' Media Challenge Fund, supported by Irish Aid.

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