I’ve just met Furaha Ciwaci in a village outside Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She’s a 17-year-old girl with fierce eyes and a one year-old son.
Furaha speaks to me in French even though Swahili is her first language. She was a good student, she tells me, but hasn’t gone to school since she was raped nearly two years ago.
Most of us have heard the terrible stories of militia rampaging through villages in DRC during the war: where men were slaughtered after watching their wives, sisters and daughters violently raped and often murdered. It still happens now.
But Furaha wasn’t raped by militia; she was raped by a neighbour. And the reason she no longer goes to school is because her parents believe she is a disgrace to the family, and not worth educating. Those who have worked hard to get Furaha back on her feet emotionally, also suspect the rape was part of a deal struck between a family member and the 20-year-old rapist.
This is how dangerous it is to be a woman in DRC.
The rapist was caught because Furaha’s screams brought a crowd to the locked front door of the house in which she was being attacked. As the villagers tried to break in, the rapist escaped through a window and was recognised as a local man. Despite identification and medical evidence, the man was held by police for just one week.
In the year after Furaha’s attack, her parents withdrew her from school and, although allowed to stay at home, she was treated as a servant – cooking and cleaning and taking care of her brothers and sisters. When the family was working or at school, Furaha was locked out of the house with no food. Soon, without guarantee of even one meal-a-day from her family, Fiston was born – a child conceived during the rape.
Furaha tells me that during that time she didn’t want to live. Her parents’ repeated taunts and cruel comments evidently still hurt her deeply now. A few months after she was raped, her mother gathered the whole family in the house and told them that Furaha was now not to be treated as a family member, that she was dirty and worth nothing. One phrase her mother used was this : “When you were born, I wish I had left you at the hospital and taken the placenta.”
Rape in DRC is such a terrible taboo and the reaction to it comes via the lens of a fiercely patriarchal society where women have almost no power. At CAFOD’s Listening Rooms, where women and girls come for psychosocial rehabilitation post sexual violence, more incidents of rape by neighbours and members of the community are being reported, and it's suspected that many of these have been set up as part of a transaction.
It is as though when the warring armies left, an awful seed was planted. In observing and hearing the tales of mass sexual violence as a weapon of war, rape as a common occurrence - and even a commodity - has taken root.
Instead of the experience of conflict leading to the protection of women in DRC, it appears that in their communities they are now more vulnerable to sexual attack and societal condemnation than ever.
Pascale Palmer is CAFOD's advocacy media officer.