In a speech in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) last week, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches challenged churches to end their denial of violence against women.
"The churches still seem to relegate violence to the private sphere, and still understand violence as only physical," the Rev Dr Samuel Kobia, declared.
"The first and most obvious [effort] is to acknowledge that the violence actually exists," said Kobia at the opening of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) women’s workshop on Transformation Leadership for Peace, Healing and Reconciliation in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
"This means taking it out of the private arena and placing it squarely at the altars of our churches, in the seats of our parliament and in the halls of our academies," said Kobia.
Churches in the DRC report that as rebel groups continue their activities in the country, women and girls continue to suffer sexual violence by armed men. Some have been brutally gang-raped, often in front of their families and communities. In numerous cases, men have also been forced at gunpoint to rape their own their relatives.
"Those women are traumatized. We keep asking ourselves: what can we do to stop the violence," said Dr Christine Amisi, the coordinator of the HIV and AIDS programme of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, South Kivu. The hospital specializes in handling cases of sexual violence. In 2008, for example, it has been handling 3500 case of sexual of violence each year.
"But those who have power seem to have a deaf ear," Amisi added.
Kobia's speech coincided with an ecumenical delegation visit sponsored by the WCC. The visit is part of the Living Letters series of visits where delegations visit churches in countries where there is conflict to listen, learn and show solidarity.
From 8-11 July 2009, Kobia and the Living Letters delegation formed five groups which travelled to different parts of the DRC, before coming together in the city on 12 July. They visited communities and projects in Goma and Bukavu in the east, Bas-Congo in the west and the central Kasai province, as well as the area around Kinshasa.
"We have seen and heard stories of women and children who not only disproportionately bear the hardships and burden of poverty but sometimes with their bodies and life pay for the egos of violent men," said Kobia.
"While these stories ring loud and clear in our ears and their pain bleeds in our heart, we still find the myopia or perhaps complete blindness of the churches and communities to recognize and acknowledge this violence," he said.
Kobia said women were asking how many stories of pain they needed to tell before the church began to listen.
At the workshop, leaders of the Church of Christ in Congo (ECC), said the Living Letters visit was crucial to them, since, as they knew the WCC had helped other countries, it could also help the DRC.
"We would like your assistance so that you can [knock] on the right door," Bishop Jean-Luc Kuye Ndondo, South Kivu’s ECC president.
The ECC wants the WCC to help lobby the international community to put pressure on the leaders of the armed groups, who they say are based in western countries, to end the fighting. They are also asking those countries which purchase the minerals mined and sold by the rebels to stop doing so.