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A movement by women in Congo fights stigma associated with rape

TCHOMIA, Congo—Vani Dikanza was running for her life through the wooded civil war battlegrounds of northeast Congo when five armed militiamen snared her. For the next several weeks she was their slave, made to carry their belongings and, she said, raped repeatedly.

When the quiet 18-year-old finally escaped and found her husband at a refugee camp in Tchomia last January, she feared that he would leave her, the fate of so many other rape victims in a war-scarred society that often views the crime as the woman's fault.

But a small group of female community leaders in Tchomia counseled Dikanza and her husband, Gilbert Gusapa. They told how medication could lessen her pain, advised her on how to avoid being attacked again and lectured him—sometimes sternly—on the need to remain loyal.

Today, the couple is still together, sharing a tiny wooden hut in a refugee camp in Tchomia, a grim lakeside town thick with the smell of fish. Gusapa sounded slightly chastened when he described what the women's committee had taught him about his wife's rape.

"It didn't happen because my wife was lacking. It was an accident," said Gusapa, 39. "The women taught us not to hate each other."

These women are part of a growing movement of female community leaders who, with support from international donors, are fighting the stigma long associated with rape in northeast Congo, where a violent, ethnically driven conflict has raged for much of the past decade.

In the war, which only now is abating, rape has been a weapon as vicious as the automatic rifle and the machete, used to terrorize the women of enemy ethnic groups and to gratify combatants. Since fighting broke out in 1997, fighters from an array of armed groups have violated tens of thousands of women and girls—some as young as 3—without fear of punishment.

The victims are left with a litany of maladies, including AIDS and vaginal fistula, a tearing of the vaginal tissue that's more common in childbirth. They are also left, in many cases, to fend for themselves, abandoned for the perceived shame they've brought to their families and forced to live alone in destitution.

But as peace slowly takes hold in northeast Congo, in dozens of towns and villages, groups of well-respected women have formed what are known in this French-speaking country as comites de vigilance—vigilance committees—that provide perhaps the only social safety net for rape victims.

The committee members, many of them matrons and schoolteachers, use loudspeakers in town squares to urge victims to come forward. They provide psychological counseling and opportunities to do odd jobs, such as gardening and baking, to help reintegrate women into the community, earn them a bit of money and rebuild their self-esteem.

If the rape occurred within 72 hours, they help get the victim to the nearest health clinic—sometimes a day's drive away or farther—for post-contact treatment against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

They also work with the victims' husbands and families, trying to promote sensitivity to sexual violence. This is the toughest task. In Congo, as in many African countries, rape is such a taboo subject that women who dare to identify themselves as victims can be immediately ostracized.

"People say that she is dirty, that she is not fit for society," said Beatrice Kuba Mbadusi, a small, sprightly schoolteacher and member of a women's committee in Bunia, the largest town in northeast Congo's Ituri region.

"They say she has lost her dignity. They don't realize that the woman is the victim."

The counseling can take several weeks. In some cases the husbands are hostile, especially when the women were held for several months or bore children because of rape.

"The worst cases are those of long detention, when the woman has been taken by force and spent four or six months as a captive," Mbadusi said. "The husband will just say that he doesn't know the woman anymore, where she was, what she did.

"Most of them become sensitized. But many of them just want to continue the African custom" of shunning the victim.

If the men listen, Mbadusi said, it's because the committees are forceful, and because the small jobs they find for victims are often their families' only source of income. Most men are unemployed.

Dikanza, who spends a few hours a week baking cakes, said, "Without that I couldn't do anything."

The deeper scars that rape left in this region will be much harder to heal. Madeleine Borive, 45, who spent two months in the captivity of five militiamen and now feels too weak to work, struggled to describe how she was repeatedly gang-raped.

"I cannot forget it," said Borive, whose coppery skin hung loosely on her thin frame. "They told me, `Let's go to sleep,' and they took me into a small house. One after the other. I was just used as a toy."

After she was let free and found her way to Tchomia, Borive said the committee spoke with her and her husband of 12 years, Louis Dheli. They gave her medicines, though she didn't know exactly what they were.

She and Dheli are still together.

"I just accepted her," said Dheli, 50, a reed-thin fisherman. "I couldn't do otherwise. It was not her fault."

The committees are trying to provide some solace in a country in which justice through legal channels is a pipe dream. The civil war that's killed 4 million people since 1997 also has destroyed Congo's judicial system and built a culture of impunity.

In a report last March, New York-based Human Rights Watch documented a host of obstacles that rape victims face in bringing cases to court, including flimsy laws, lack of protection for victims and the unwillingness of Congolese military and government officials to take rape charges seriously.

This year Congo will hold its first free elections since 1960, but it may be many years before its women—long denied basic rights—will feel comfortable turning to the courts for justice.

"There are certain aspects of Congolese society that encourage sexual violence," said Julie Caron of the Ituri office of Cooperazione Internazionale, an Italian charity that's helped establish several vigilance committees in the Ituri region. The project has been funded in part by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Even as violence has diminished in Ituri, Caron said, she sees 300 to 400 new rape cases every month. The perpetrators are everywhere: bandits, holdouts from ethnic militias, ex-combatants now integrated into the Congolese army and husbands themselves.

Women remain at risk in doing their traditional household duties, such as fetching water and wood. The committees counsel women not to leave their villages alone or after dark.

"Most of them (men) are still doing what they were doing during the war," said Jeanne Ukura, 41, a member of Tchomia's vigilance committee. "They have the same habits. They only know about violence."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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