On Friday November 9th, Lesley University hosted the Violence Against Women Conference. This event encompassed various aspects of violence that women endure world-wide. While the conference aimed to raise awareness about violence against women as a whole, each part came with a particular interpretation of what this violence is, as well as practical ways to fight against it– whether the violence is physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. Various ways to communicate about it were also used, some through the arts , literary, performance as well as visual.
I attended a session with Professor Kimberly Lowe, who spoke about rape as an act of genocide; both the law and and history of it in the context of genocide. That particular session was very informative to me, because I had just done a presentation on violence against women happening in Eastern DRC. Our class (Genocide and the International Community, as well English Language and Composition Honors) had to do a visual presentations on selected accounts of victims who had suffered violence during a genocide or war.
My presentation was on the sexual violence against women happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where I am from originally. In the context of war and conflict, violence against women is occurring there in all its various forms: whether it be physical, emotional or mental violation, sexual assault and rape have proven to be remarkable weapons, and the effect of the violations go far beyond the individual victims. In the ongoing civil unrest in Eastern DRC, women are assaulted because the perpetrators want to send a message about power and dominance. In the midst of this conflict, communities are being displaced, human rights violated, and in the case of women, sexual violence becomes an epidemic.
Unfortunately, women face the seemingly irreparable damage that is done to their bodies, minds, hearts and culture. In eastern DRC, sexual violence against women is particularly ruthless: it often involves gang rapes in which women are raped by two or more men– one after the other or simultaneously. In some cases penetration using foreign objects, including rifles, also happens. Hence, as the perpetrators are exercising their dominance, they are making their victims feel totally helpless.
However, in the midst of the atrocities, some people are taking action to help the women to recover. Panzi Hospital, as well as the City of Joy, have become beacons of hope. Led by Dr Denis Mukwege, these two institutions ensure that the victims are well taken care of. The Panzi hospital is well-respected for the extensive surgery offered to the women who have been victims of these violations. The doctors perform extensive surgeries, and women have ample time for recovery within the walls of the hospital. For decades, the hospital has adopted the mentality of “heal, live and hope.” The victims are encouraged to fight for their lives, and to hope for a better future. They are taught to retaliate by being stronger than they were before.
The physical healing process of these women take months, and for some, it may take years, involving multiple surgeries. Panzi Hospital ensures that these women get the medical support they need. In some cases the men who raped these women have mutilated their genitals, resulting in “obstetric fistula,” which is essentially a condition in which a hole has been left between the vagina and rectum or bladder, causing the woman to be incontinent. This medical condition often requires the patient to be in a specific ward, as the severity of the injuries to body and spirit make the patient unable to be directly reintroduced into society.
In the same vein, the mental, spiritual and emotional components of these women’s treatment are taken care of in the City of Joy. Not only is there a cultural stigma attached to rape, which means that often these women cannot directly go back into their communities, as their own husbands or fathers reject them. But also because these rapes sometimes involve family members or relatives, the dynamics make things extremely complicated. Ultimately, these women have to find a place which is welcoming towards them, and in which they don’t feel ashamed and ostracized. The City of Joy is such a place for these women. With the motto “turning pain into power,” the City of Joy is a place in which the survivors can be transparent about what happened to them, and also go through the healing process by talking about their ordeal with others who understand, and finding strength and hope within one another.
The City of Joy is a place of empowerment also because these women receive an education and can graduate from the City of Joy with important job and life-skills. The survivors’ experiences are taken into account, but hope is infused into them, because no matter how bad their experience was, they were able to live through it. Both the City of Joy and Panzi Hospital are in many regards the fruit of Dr Denis Mukwege who has been militant in his efforts to put an end to such atrocities against women. He has repeatedly risked his life because of the work he does and has been tenacious in the battle he wages on behalf of Congolese women. That is why Dr Mukwege was the Nobel Peace Prize winner this year, honoring his efforts to create a better place for the women in Eastern DRC. His work, and his accomplishments, are simply remarkable.
The Violence against Women Conference was a setting in which I was able to present information about this ongoing situation. But while I am glad I could provide information about what is happening to many women in eastern DRC, violence against women is not only limited to one country. It is a widespread epidemic, requiring us to pay specific attention; and it goes much further than just targeted violence that only
women endure. It is a communal problem, that is bigger than gender, culture, origin or ethnicity. It is a HUMAN problem, and therefore more must be done to address it, wherever it occurs.