The Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, (CAFOD) has joined forces with a coalition of international organisations to raise awareness of the unacceptable suffering of the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo).
Yakin Erturk, the United Nations Special adviser on violence against women, has described the situation of sexual violence in DR Congo as the ‘worst in the world’.
A coterie of artists, writers, musicians, and human rights activists will be showing their solidarity with the people of DR Congo, by coming together under the banner of Congo Now! tomorrow (Thursday 7th May) at London’s South Bank Centre.
Joining them will be Fr Justin Nkunzi, Director of CAFOD's partner, Bukavu Archdiocese Justice and Peace Commission, in South Kivu, a province in the east of DR Congo.
He said: “I am pleased to be apart of this event, that will bring public attention to the issues of my country, such as the epidemic of sexual violence.”
“The work of the Justice and Peace Commission is about changing attitudes and giving people the hope and the ability to bring about change for themselves, their families, their communities. CAFOD’s support for our ‘Listening Rooms' are an important initative in the healing process.”
Although there have been several internationally brokered peace agreements signed in recent years, they are having little effect on the ground. Well armed militia are active, often competing with each other for access to mines which produce valuable minerals such as gold, casiterite and coltan. Instability and a population living in fear of attack, enables rebel militias to continue their illegal activities of personal enrichment with impunity.
The United Nations Special adviser on violence against women, Yakin Erturk said: “The situation is most acute in South Kivu … where sexual atrocities that are of an unimaginable brutality aim at the complete physical and psychological destruction of women.”
British actress Thandie Newton will be performing an Eve Ensler monologue at the Congo Now! event. Ms Newton was one of the signatories of a letter to the Times newspaper (2nd April) – ‘Tackling sexual terrorism in Congo’ along with 72 other female public figures. In their letter they call for an end to the ‘horrific sexual violence and torture that has devastated the population…’
The population of South Kivu is estimated to be 1.5 million. In 2008, 14,000 rapes were recorded. The actual figure is thought to be far greater because many survivors never speak out as the stigma causes them to become outcasts from the community.
"This is not about raping women for pleasure. It is a strategy for destroying a people", said Fr Justin.
"The perpetrators know that the most effective way of humiliating a man is to rape his wife and daughters. These kinds of acts introduce illnesses such as HIV and AIDS which spread through the community and may affect people for many years to come."
Fr Justin works with support from CAFOD on tackling sexual violence, through a new network of 'listening rooms'. The rooms are a place of sanctuary where women survivors of rape, together with other members of their communities, can come together to be comforted and to receive counselling and help to overcome the trauma of their ordeal. It is most important to help ensure that community cohesion is not destroyed by these acts of violence. He said: “The outreach work that we do, also includes men. Men must teach each other that real men do not violate or oppress women. We have to change the mentality of our men.”
Fr Justin told CAFOD that people need justice, not just food and shelter.
However, the justice system falls short of addressing the problems of sexual violence and women survivors are denied the compensation to which they are entitled under international and Congolese law.
CAFOD and its Congolese partners will continue to call on the British and Congolese governments as well as international policy makers, to tackle the underlying causes driving the conflict in DR Congo and to work at breaking the cycle of violence that pervades Congolese society.
Fr Justin said: “The international community, along with Congolese civil society, need to continue to demand justice for the victims of sexual and human rights abuses and accountability in the exploitation and uses of revenues from our abundant natural resources.
“Despite the horrors that we continue to endure in our country, please also remember that we are a people that have the sheer will to survive and make our lives better. I hope that Congo Now! will be an opportunity to really bring the lives of the Congolese people to the people of London.“