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Supporting victims of rape in conflict

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rape in conflict, government policiesBut does UK policy indirectly continue to support it?

Between 1999 and 2012, Panzi Hospital, in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)  treated 19,270 survivors of sexualized violence.

The hospital’s medical director and international advocate for survivors of rape in conflict, Dr Denis Mukwege, told the BBC: “These weren’t just violent acts of war, but part of a strategy.

“You had situations where multiple people were raped at the same time, publicly – a whole village might be raped during the night. In doing this, they hurt not just the victims but the whole community, which they force to watch.

“The result of this strategy is that people are forced to flee their villages, abandon their fields, their resources, everything. It’s very effective.”

The suffering of many survivors is compounded by an indirect but effective ban on abortion provision by many humanitarian organisations.

One of the main causes of the abortion ban is the USA’s infamous ‘Helm’s Amendment’, which states that:  “No foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.”

Although a US policy, the Helm’s Amendment has an international impact on aid, as the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and other national funding programmes do not require recipient organisations like The Red Cross to separate out their funds to allow abortion provision.

A new Early Day Motion (EDM), sponsored by Katy Clark MP, calls on the government to: “review all funding to aid agencies operating in conflict zones to ensure that all aid providers in receipt of UK monies facilitate access to counselling and abortion services for all women and girls impregnated by rape.”

Only 52 MPs out of 650 have currently expressed support for the EDM and their names can be found here.

If your MP is not among them – or if you would like yours to take further action – click here for details of the ongoing campaign to end rape in conflict. For previous coverage by WVoN click here and here.

But for some international activists, it is all too easy for governments to ignore the complexity and context in which rape is employed as a weapon of war, particularly the often-neglected issue of the involvement of western states – including the UK – in supporting conflicts across the world.

B K Kumbi, Congolese historian and activist, criticises UK government policy for encouraging the world to “forget about the role played by Rwanda in this tragedy.”

In a recent interview Kumbi added, “This kind of speech says nothing of those who allow these rapes to be possible.”

UK aid to the Rwandan government was frozen in July last year and reinstated in September, to be distributed by aid organisations.

However, a £9m package of aid to the Rwandan government was announced in March this year, despite repeated claims from Human Rights Watch (HRW) that Rwandan soldiers have been crossing the border to take supplies to M23 Congo rebels.

In its report, Human Rights Watch highlighted that the Rwandan-backed M23 rebels carried out at least 61 identified cases of rape in the Congo. In 2012, HRW also told of M23 fighters raping at least 46 women and girls, the youngest of whom was only 8 years old.

The failure of the UK government to address the complexity and context of rape as a weapon of war in the DRC is also being challenged by the Labour opposition for being ‘too soft’ on Rwandan aid.

Writing in the Telegraph, the shadow secretary for international development, Ivan Lewis, and shadow minister for Africa and the Middle East Ian Lucas said that if elected: “Labour will only support the reinstatement of direct UK funding if it can be demonstrated that for at least a 12-month period no direct or indirect support has been provided by the Government of Rwanda to militias operating in DRC.”

Beyond the complexities of international politics, Elizabeth Jean Wood, a political scientist at Yale University who has undertaken research on the use of sexual violence in conflict, believes that the use of sexual violence in conflict is not inevitable.

Commenting on the Women Under Siege project’s site, Wood recently said: “That some armed groups do not rape civilians – at least some of the time – should give us hope.

“Rape in war is not inevitable, and therefore current policy initiatives – including prosecution of perpetrators and their commanders – may reduce this form of wartime violence.”

  1. Sally Jackson says:

    Great to see this issue being raised. Rape in conflict has a devastating effect not just on the women who are raped (often by multiple perpetrators) but on entire communities & the next generation of children who are born as a result of rape. That is in part it’s purpose – to eradicate specific communities. How does a young person grow & develop as a valued member of a community know they have been the product of such violence? How do communities & mothers care for children in such circumstances? Amazingly women do of course raise & love these children but can face discrimination & ostrasicism as a result. Please get involved & encourage your MP to sign the EDM. Rape in conflict cannot be allowed to continue.

    • Completely agree with you Sally, this issue is so very important and underpins policy-based misogyny in both the US and in communities across the world.

      If we are working to promote justice and freedom for rape victims here at home, we must also extend that work across the world to support those campaigners in different countries who are so unfairly impacted by deliberately limited forms of western ‘aid’.

  2. Vickiwharton says:

    Male politicians here support rape media as freedom of speech – im not sure they have any real interest in stopping rape anywhere since that would acknowledge that men arent the superior race they like to believe they are part of … ? 🙂

  3. I agree with you Vicki, thanks, although that certainly isn’t true of all men or male politicians. And of course, not all politicians are male….though not enough are female!

    I also think that the reluctance of our policy makers to intervene in flawed and misogynistic policy-making is even more reason for us to lobby our MPs for this EDM.

  4. Vickiwharton says:

    Sorry, when i say male politicians am refering to the general concensus of both male and female. Not every mp supports sexist media but the ones that dont seem to be so terribly quiet….

    • Haha! Yes,that is often the case, isn’t it? And not just among MPs – I’ve lost count of how many men are happy to talk to me alone about their support for feminist campaigns but then seem to ‘forget’ that strength of feeling when their male friends are in the room….. 😉

  5. I would like first to thank Sarah Cheverton for this article that really tries to make sense of the horrific war in the Congo. The problem of the general discourse on rape in the DRC is that it often leaves aside the question of the war that is a fundamental aspect here. While we must question this act in terms of gender because this issue has its importance in what is happening in this country, we cannot only address this issue from this perspective. It is a wrong road and it only strengthens our own categories of analysis. Why do I say that? Speaking with Congolese activists who are on site in the Kivu and who are working in the area of ​​sexual violences, they say that on the ground we see more and more rapes against men. What is particularly shocking in this category of rape is that the perpetrators are not only men but are also women. This is of course not the bulk of the phenomenon, but it forces us to reassess our analytical framework in relation to this problem. I know that the temptation to define the issue in terms of the sole opposition between woman and man is very appealing but war is not a simple phenomenon and the Congolese people deserve our compassion but above all our intellectual honesty when we analyze the tragedy we are going through. We must be particularly attentive to the context in which these rapes are committed.
    Rape in the DRC is war and it is a war that is as much done against women, children and men. Rape in this case is an aggravating factor of the crime of genocide. What is sought through this act is not only to displace the Congolese population in order to replace it mainly by Rwandan speaking Tutsi population but it aims at trying to stop the reproductive capacity of the Congolese women. So this is basically a form of extremely brutal and barbaric sterilization.

    These acts are not random acts. They are underpinned by the desire of certain neighbors supported by Western multinationals and governments to grab the Congolese Kivu lands that are rich in raw materials such as coltan used to manufacture cell phones or missiles for instance. Those who will benefit from this are the neighboring Rwanda and by proxy Uganda if they succeeded in making of the Kivu a buffer state under the aegis of the UN. This is the backdrop in which the violence occurs and that we must denounce absolutely. If we only highlight the rape of women, it becomes very easy just to call for an end of rape leaving the call to stop the war aside.

    As Congolese woman what puts me off is the fact that no room is left for the victims. Their word is supposedly always relayed by Westerners (feminists, politicians, actors …) when they know better who rape them, who rape their children or husbands. No one really wants to listen to them as it contradicts the narrative that is set up here in the West, that wants to completely ignore the question of the genocide of the Congolese people. The silence that surrounds the question at stake in the Congo becomes even more clear to me when I see how a report by Human Rights Watch, in 2005, was totally ignored more correctly silenced. This report, that was the basis of the prosecution launched by the International Criminal Court against Uganda, showed that Uganda had committed war crimes, genocide and looting in Congo. However no body has ever faced justice for those crimes. It is easier today to prosecute an individual or an army battalion than going after a state and above all,when those particular states have been either supported and protected by the West or have done nothing to protect their citizens (Congo presidency). The problems that Congolese people have to face are manifold but there is a single truth here: people should really start to listen to the Congolese people not the ones who do as if they are ruling this country when they are just there to enrich themselves, but the ones who are daily exterminated. I am not speaking from no where as when I talk about more than 6 millions who have died in Congo some very dear to me are among these dead.

    BK Kumbi

  6. Wow, B K Kumbi – thanks so much for adding such a significant viewpoint to the article. I’m fascinated by your comments on the importance of broader context when looking at rape in the Congo and your comments about the rising incidence of male rape, which is something I haven’t heard about before and will certainly follow up.

    I’ve become very aware recently of how easy it is – even with the best of intentions – for western media to replicate dominant global power structures in the way we report these campaigns – giving voice to some, ignoring the voices of others. I think this also overlaps with the problem we often have in the western media of acknowledging complexity in our international coverage.

    I’m so glad you feel that I went some way to addressing that here and can’t thank you enough for the information and comment you’ve added, which brings much greater depth to the story. I’m particularly grateful for you taking the time to add to the conversation here, given your personal relationship to the subject and given the loss of some of your own friends in the Congo.

    Thanks again BK.

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