- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 9, 2009

BUGERI, Congo | On a recent rainy afternoon, 100 Congolese soldiers lined up in a shabby formation to participate in anti-rape “sensitization” training.

The recruits slouched and fiddled, listening to an audiotape of soldiers boasting after a gang rape and then pressuring a reluctant enlisted man to take his turn. Although the drama was scripted, it made for chilling listening for a group of women’s health advocates, soldiers’ wives and foreigners who had been invited to observe the exercise.

Afterward, an officer drilled his men on the dos and don’ts of sexual violence, including advice on how to treat their own wives and daughters and how to respect women in general.

It didn’t seem to be much of a success.

“What if my wife wants to have sex and I don’t?” asked a soldier who was applauded by his buddies for his cheekiness. “Do your rules protect me, too?”

Until the men of the Democratic Republic of the Congo begin to treat sensitivity courses as more than a joke or a tiresome obligation, it is doubtful that this nation will see a serious reduction in sexual crimes against women. The rape wave here has reached epidemic proportions, particularly in the eastern part of the country, jeopardizing the chances for recovery from more than a decade of civil war.

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“Just as men perpetrate sexual violence, men are the only ones who can stop it,” said Joseph Ciza, who oversees programs for children including the victims of rape and the children of rape at Heal Africa, a local charity.

Maj. Jean-David Mwimba, battalion commander in the Bukavu suburb of Bugeri, acknowledged that rape is a problem in the country and said “the military just reflects that.”

He said he was satisfied with the hourlong sensitization training provided for his troops and wasn’t concerned that so many of the soldiers put through the course seem to have missed the message.

“It’s like a school audience; they can’t have the same level of sensitization,” he told The Washington Times. “They all had the same material. Some learn faster than others.”

Although no one knows for sure how many rape victims there are in this country, the United Nations estimates that 200,000 women have been raped in the past decade and that 40 are raped each day just in the eastern region of South Kivu.

At the base of the epidemic is a culture that expects much from women but provides little in return.

While men predominate in the professions, the military and the government, women in rural areas appear to do all the work: tilling the fields, gathering firewood, cleaning homes, shopping for provisions, cooking meals and raising children.

The majority of village men seem to lift nothing heavier than a cigarette lighter. But without their support and respect for women, observers say, the cycle of violence and abandonment will never be broken.

Men shun wives, sisters and daughters who have been raped, accusing them of being “unfaithful” or bringing home HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

“If I keep [my wife] after the rape, the neighbors will think we are having sex,” said one of the Bugeri soldiers. “And that I have the AIDS, too. The culture says if she has sex with another man, I must send her away.”

Humanitarian groups appeal to men to accept the wives and sisters who have survived rape and sexual torture.

Hospital outreach workers say husbands and fathers in rural Congo often feel humiliated because they could not protect their families.

Persuading the men

“We really need the other half, for men to be equally as enraged” as women, said Sarah Mosely, Goma coordinator for the International Rescue Committee, which is trying to ease the taboos against women who survive the attacks. “There is a certain level of detachment and maybe a quiet desperation. It’s been going on for so long now, most everyone knows someone who has been raped.”

Gynecologist Denis Mukwege, Congo’s premier surgeon for traumatic sexual injuries, said he tries to persuade male relatives not to abandon his patients.

“We have a mobile team that tries to reach husbands and explain,” he said during an interview at Panzi hospital, which he founded to treat rape victims. “We tell them not to leave. … We tell them it is not her fault,” he said. “We tell them to … try to make an effort at a new life.”

The United Nations also has been trying to change attitudes toward rape and its victims. The world body has a large presence in Congo that includes representatives from UNICEF, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, human rights and legal advisers and a peacekeeping mission known as MONUC with nearly 22,000 international and Congolese staff.

In March, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Heal Africa’s hospital and rehabilitation facility in central Goma. He met women recovering from surgery, and doctors who described the sexual violence and the local epidemic of traumatic fistula.

Mr. Ban appeared visibly shaken and passionately urged an end to impunity for rapists.

Many of their victims “had developed fistula - a rupture of the walls of the vagina, bladder and rectum that renders victims incontinent and prone to infection and disease,” Mr. Ban told reporters, probably becoming the first secretary-general in U.N. history to say the word “vagina” into a microphone.

However, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo - the largest and most expensive Blue Helmet force in history - also has been tainted by accusations of sexual exploitation and abuse, making it harder for the United Nations to hold itself above rebuke.

The national Congolese army, known by its French acronym FARDC, is an even worse offender.

According to the United Nations, FARDC is responsible for one-third to one-half of all rapes and sexual violence committed in North and South Kivus. The army is also thought to be responsible for 20 percent of Congo’s rapes nationwide.

Male ‘bonding’

Respect for women has not been an easy lesson for the FARDC to learn. Even worse, demobilized soldiers and civilian men have begun to force themselves on women and children as the culture of impunity spreads.

For most men, this is an act of exerting power and forming bonds with one another, not seeking sexual satisfaction.

“Sexual violence is a unit-level phenomenon that is used as a socialization practice, particularly by fighters who need to trust each other but do not know each other,” Dara Kay Cohen, a predoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, told a recent conference in Washington sponsored by the U.S. Institute for Peace. “Gang rape is used to create cohesion, especially in institutions with consistent influxes of new members. The desire to fit in is a powerful motivator for group violence. The new members did not want to rape but were mocked and treated like they were not serious rebels,” she said.

She added that most rapes were “organized bottom-up,” not by commanders.

Tony Gambino, an aid specialist and consultant who has followed developments in Congo since he was a Peace Corps volunteer here 30 years ago, said the problem is that a generation of men has grown up without law and order.

“They have learned to live within a certain lawlessness,” he said.

Some Congolese soldiers think that having sex with virgins conveys magic powers or can even cure AIDS.

At Panzi hospital in Bukuvu, Washington-based Women for Women International and other groups dispatch large all-terrain vehicles up narrow dirt tracks to find injured women in the most isolated villages.

While there, the staffers give counseling sessions, exhorting husbands, sons and fathers to stand by their women after such terrible ordeals.

There are men who try to restore their relationships, sometimes even accepting a daughter conceived by rape. Boys, however, are another matter. Little boys born of assaults are commonly regarded as the future generation of fighters who may grow up to turn against their own families. As a result, shelters for unwanted children here often hold far more boys than girls, an anomaly compared with orphanages elsewhere in the world.

“We have a majority of boys here,” said Masika Katsuva, who runs a North Kivu shelter for women that includes an orphanage. “The women leave them so they can go home.”

Cassie Fleming contributed to this report from Washington.

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