As we take the day to celebrate the achievements of women around the world and appreciate the significant roles of women globally, we must also acknowledge that in 2016, women and girls continue to be disproportionately affected by violence, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
In 2010, Margot Wallstrom, the United Nations Secretary—General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, described the DRC as the “rape capital of the world.” Several shocking statistics have been reported on the number of rapes in the Congo since 2010—but it is both difficult and problematic to track a crime that frequently goes unreported. Even if women do speak out, they are left with no effective system of accountability for the perpetrators.
In the DRC, rape has been used as a strategic tool of war meant to destroy communities and undo the fabric of society. When armed groups target women in their attacks, it destabilizes the community. Women are stigmatized and ostracized from their homes, while men are left humiliated because they were unable to protect their wives, mothers, and sisters. Women are targeted because they are leaders of their communities and are responsible for completing many of the tasks vital to maintaining family and community life: Women raise children. They obtain firewood for cooking fuel. Women cultivate crops. They clean and maintain their homes. It is the women and girls who are tasked with traveling for hours to collect water. Sexual violence prevents women from being able to fulfill these societal duties, and in turn, effectively disrupts societies.
In addition to the physical trauma and terror brought about by such attacks, rape and sexual violence also have social and mental consequences. If women are lucky enough to receive medical treatment, they rarely have anywhere to return to for their recovery—physically and mentally. Since 2006, Jewish World Watch (JWW) has funded a number of projects aimed at helping women in the DRC repair their lives and gain the skills necessary to become self-sufficient. The Tumaini (Hope) Project at Maison Dorcas facility, for instance, provides skills training, group counseling, and educational opportunities for rape survivors who have been treated at Panzi Hospital. The project takes a holistic approach, giving women the time to heal physically, but also addressing their psychosocial and economic needs by providing therapeutic programs and vocational training.
Jewish World Watch also funds the Teen Mother’s Program at Mumosho Women’s Center in partnership with ABFEK/Action Kivu. The Center serves as a safe space for women who have survived sexual assault and allows these women to learn and gain essential vocational skills needed to become self-sufficient. I am particularly touched by the stories of Nadine, Chanceline, and Cikwanine, three young women who now call the Center home, and are studying and working to rebuild their lives. In addition to living at the Center, Cikwanine is a part of our Educational Assistance Program, also held in partnership with ABFEK/Action Kivu. JWW provides students like Cikwanine with school fees, supplies, and uniforms and in doing so, not only affords these students with an invaluable education, but also sets them on a path towards a brighter future. The program has left Cikwanine with a newfound sense of hope: “My goal is to go to university and become a lawyer to be able to stand for and with the people who have no voice.”
In acknowledging that men are not only a part of the problem, but also an essential part of the solution, JWW also partners with Africa New Day in support of their Sons of Congo program. The project utilizes education as a way of breaking stereotypes about women and rethinking notions of masculinity. Such programs aim at addressing the root causes of sexual violence, and are essential to creating environments in which women are supported and acknowledged as equals who should be valued for their roles in holding up a community.
If an assault on women leads to the breakdown of a community, then it is the recuperation and empowerment of women that becomes key to rebuilding a society. We must reject the idea that women are merely victims of violence, and acknowledge them as survivors best suited to lead their communities. In the 2015 United Nations Security Council “Report of the Secretary-General on women and peace and security,” Ban Ki-Moon writes that new research “demonstrates clearly that the inclusion of women leads to more sustainable peace and enhanced prevention efforts.” Protecting women, encouraging women to be in the workforce, and providing women with the skills to lift themselves out of poverty, are all essential to strengthening communities, growing economies, and establishing peace.
On International Women’s Day, we are reminded that by investing in women, we are investing in the development of societies as a whole.
To learn more about ways to support the women of eastern Congo, please visit Jewish World Watch and read about our on-the-ground projects, which provide vocational skills, education, and counseling services to women and children. You can support these women by making a donation to Jewish World Watch today.