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Strategies of Protection

Women and girls of eastern Congo, their families, and the larger community have developed different strategies to protect them from sexual violence. Some families have sent their women and girls to safer locations. A Bukavu resident told Human Rights Watch researchers, "I have a girl in my house whose parents sent her away to keep her from being raped."202 In other cases, most of the family has fled to safer areas.203 A priest from a rural parish said, "Women, girls and young men are not in the villages anymore-you only find old people."204

Another frequently used strategy is seeking safety in numbers. When possible women and girls try to go to market, to the forest, or to the fields in groups, hoping thus to discourage assailants.205 Sometimes effective, this practice at other times just delivers larger numbers of women and girls into the hands of assailants. In a variant of this strategy, older women, thought to be less vulnerable to attack, have replaced young women and girls in carrying out activities that require traveling some distance from home. Useful in protecting those who might otherwise be most targeted, this strategy provides no protection for the older women. And as one fourteen-year-old who had been raped commented, "I don't think there is a way to protect ourselves from this. Now we try to make it so the older women go for the charcoal, but at some time everyone will have to go."206

In some communities men accompanied groups of women and girls going to market or to cultivate their fields. In one case documented by Human Rights Watch researchers, a man accompanying a group of women tried unsuccessfully to defend one of them when an armed soldier tried to rape her. He was himself shot by the soldier and now suffers from a permanent disability.207

In towns some women and girls now wear an extra layer of clothes known as umugondo or just gondo to make it more difficult for assailants to get at their bodies. 208

If confronted by armed men who intended to rape them, some women and girls have fought back, using their wits as well as their fists and feet. Some have tried to shame or persuade their assailants to leave them alone while others have resisted physically or fled. Given the disproportionate power in the hands of the assailants, relatively few women and girls succeeded in escaping rape and other injuries. As a nurse-counselor explained: "Most [perpetrators] say they are going to kill them [the victims]. They say `how much does it cost to kill you-one bullet, one dollar.' The girls say they then give in."209

Response by Civil Society

The scale and horror of sexual violence against women and girls in eastern Congo have prompted churches, human rights associations, women's rights groups and other NGOs to assist the victims and to push for the protection of women's rights.

Churches and some local NGOs provided both material and emotional support to women and girls who had been raped, otherwise sexually abused, or abducted. Some gave material assistance to enable women to resume life in the community after having been abducted for long periods away from home. Some helped victims to resettle in the city, away from villages where they were stigmatized. Often they offered moral support, with church staff or members listening to the victim's story and giving advice.

Churches and local NGOs, not the de facto Rwandan and RCD authorities, deliver medical care to rape victims. In the absence of any functioning official health system, churches and NGOs set up small clinics where raped women are treated for injuries and, in some places, tested for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. This is being done with minimal funding. In addition, some human rights groups assist victims in seeking treatment for more complicated injuries, by raising funds and putting them in touch with Congolese and international medical organizations.

In some cases, NGOs and individual lawyers provided legal advice and assistance to those few victims who considered making an official complaint.

An increasing number of women's associations and human rights NGOs have begun denouncing abuses against civilians in the context of the current armed conflict, and violence against women and girls in particular. Investigators went regularly into the rural areas of North and South Kivu, speaking to the victims and witnesses, and they have pulled together a substantial amount of information about sexual violence.210

In addition, many rights groups are publicly campaigning against attacks on women and girls in this war. On International Women's Day, March 8, 1999, a coalition of women's organizations produced a poster with the title "Enough is enough-when will the war end?" showing a woman and her children being attacked by soldiers. On March 8, 2000, women's groups organized a "Day without Women," during which women stayed away from public life to protest the toll the war has taken on women. On International Women's Day 2001, the women's movement planned a march to protest rights violations, and a local human rights group distributed a leaflet that read:

Women say NO to sexual violence used as a weapon of war in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The rape of women and girls, without distinction of age, by armed men in our villages must be punished as a crime against humanity. We have never wished nor planned the war in our country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Why do we have to be the first victims?

RCD authorities, who engaged in regular harassment of human rights activists and others whom they see as representing critical voices of dissent, prohibited activities and marches planned by women's and rights groups and threatened some of the women's leaders.211 RCD authorities harassed human rights activists, including women's rights leaders, and sometimes imprisoned and beat them. In July 2001 RCD authorities briefly detained a women's rights activist in Goma and in August 2001: they briefly held Gégé Katana, who leads a women's network in Uvira, and her husband Jules Nteba, who heads an NGO for adult education.212

Civil society actors have agreed on a program of demands that they are taking to the Inter-Congolese Dialogue, including a recommendation for an international criminal tribunal to judge grave human rights abuses in Congo. This is coupled with a call for a truth and reconciliation commission charged with investigating abuses since 1960, and insistence upon initiating a meaningful process of reconciliation and dialogue in the country. Other important recommendations concern the withdrawal of foreign troops and democratic reform.213

In October 2001, thirty-five human rights activists and women's leaders came together to devise strategies to combat violence against women in the context of the war. Their recommendations built upon the program developed by other civil society organizations, making several more specific recommendations with regards to the protection of women. They demanded, for example, that an international criminal tribunal prosecute sexual crimes and that the U.N. deploy more resources to assist women and girls who are victims of sexual violence and those affected by HIV/AIDS. They also called for legal reform aimed at treating women and men as equals and for legal protection of women affected by HIV/AIDS.214

202 Human Rights Watch interview, Bukavu, October 16, 2001.

203 Human Rights Watch group meeting, Goma, October 23, 2001.

204 Human Rights Watch interview, October 17, 2001.

205 Human Rights Watch interview, Bukavu, October 15, 2001.

206 Human Rights Watch interview, Murhesa, October 19, 2001.

207 Human Rights Watch interview, Goma, October 25, 2001.

208 Human Rights Watch interview, Goma, October 25, 2001.

209 Human Rights Watch interview, Bukavu, October 16, 2001.

210 Héritiers de la Justice, "Situation des Droits de l'Homme en République Démocratique du Congo (RDC) cas du Sud-Kivu. Une population désesperée, délassée et prise en otage," Rapport Avril-Décembre 2000 (Report April to December 2000).

211 See also chapter on attacks on women's groups in Human Rights Watch, "Eastern Congo Ravaged," p.27-28.

212 Human Rights Watch press release, "Congolese Activist Detained and Beaten in Eastern Congo" (New York, November 25, 2001) and "Eastern Congo: Rebels' Persecution of Rights Activists" (New York, August 21, 2001). Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, August, 2001 and Goma and Bukavu, August and October, 2001.

213 Interview with Marie Shimati, women's delegate of civil society for North Kivu, Goma, October 27, 2001. The full program of civil society is presented in: Rapport de la concertation inter-provinciale des forces vives, Bukavu, du 4 au 10 octobre 2001.

214 Recommendations de l'atelier de formation et de consultation sur les violences contre les femmes en situation de guerre, Goma, 22-23 octobre 2001.

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