Last month, David Cameron and Jeffrey Sachs wrote a piece in The Independent on the role of women in international development. They argued that cumulative progress comes when girls and women are educated and their health improved, and that this vision must be at the heart of UK policies for the poorest communities abroad.
The United Nations points out that of 1.3 billion poor people across the globe, 70 per cent are women. Behind every poor man stands a poorer woman who has fewer rights and fewer opportunities. Yet these women act as the glue that even in the most challenging circumstances, keeps family and community structures in place and often functioning against all the odds.
I am about to catch a flight to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where the understanding of the power of women to hold communities together has been brutally exploited as a weapon of war.
From 1996 to 2003, conflict in DRC claimed 3.8 million lives; by 2008 disease and starvation had taken the death toll to 5.4 million. Sexual violence against girls and women has been one of the most horrific aspects of the conflict, with the eastern province of South Kivu being particularly affected. Even now local groups say an average of 40 women are raped every day in the area. Of these, 13 per cent are under 14 years old, three per cent die as a result of rape and 10-12 per cent contract HIV/AIDS. Kidnappings, sexual slavery, gang rapes and forced marriages are common.
When guns and machetes have been put down, gender-based sexual violence continues to rip out the heart of community and society as women, and the children resulting from rape, are disowned by their families. It devastates women and girls emotionally and physically, often leaving them homeless and suffering disease and infection. Such horrific abuse has left hundreds of thousands of women in DRC rejected, stigmatised and vulnerable to further attack.
Over the next two weeks I hope to gain a better understanding of the situation faced by women in the eastern towns of Goma and Bukavu who are trying to rebuild their lives after sexual violence. Technology allowing, I’ll tell you what I find.
Pascale Palmer is CAFOD's advocacy media officer.