Twelve hundred people crowded into Brisbane Convention Centre Ballroom to mark International Woman’s Day on March 5, 2009. They had come to hear Lulu Mitshabu, Program Coordinator Africa for Caritas Australia, talk about the Democratic Republic of Congo. Perhaps few would have anticipated how dreadful her story would be. Or had truly understood before that the Congo is a country where rape has been organised and harnessed as a weapon of war.
It is also a country where an estimated 1,200 civilians die each day. So as Lulu Mitshabu spoke to the audience - stunned into silence by the things she had to say - ironically and unwittingly it also represented the same numbers as one day’s death toll in the Congo.
Almost four million people died during the second Congo war, and 2.1 million poverty and conflict-related deaths have occurred subsequently.
An estimated 80 per cent of the DRC population is now living below the poverty line; more than 70 per cent of people are undernourished. Life expectancy is just 47 years, with latest statistics suggesting that 20 per cent of children do not live until the age of five.
The deaths are mostly from conflict-related causes: preventable diseases, poverty, atrocities and gender-based violence.
But what Lulu Mitshabu had come to tell her audience about was rape - rape on a massive scale. She described how in the Congo tens of thousands of people had been systematically raped, with entire communities held hostage.
Rape was being used as a weapon of war to achieve the aims of the government and the military, she said. Women became vulnerable when they went to wells for water; girls were vulnerable going to and from school. The situation was so bad it had become more dangerous for those women than for a soldier on the front line.
“It is sex slavery and forced prostitution to achieve government and military aims,” she said. Women were sometimes raped by as many as 20 men. The women’s ages ranged from under six months to over 70. Young girls were captured to be used as sex slaves.
Women were beaten. Women were raped in front of their families and husbands. There were incidents of cutting and penetration of vaginas with knives and other objects. It resulted in families becoming traumatised for the rest of their lives. Many men became deeply affected because they were unable to protect their wives and daughters.
The objective of such massive rape was to destabilise opposition groups, she said. It was creating a public health crisis. Serious physical problems often resulted, including the spread of HIV-AIDS currently affecting about 60 per cent of the population, as well as other diseases; some young girls suffered from fistula conditions. A great many infections went unreported because people did not seek medical help, either because they could not afford it or were not able to reach it.
Caritas offers medical counselling. Additional information coming from the Congo indicates many children were being raised by mothers whose pregnancy resulted from being raped. There are worries that an extended cycle of abuse and violence would imbue younger generations with an accustomed sensibility, meaning that without intervention, the incidence of rape would continue to remain high.
Lulu Mitshabu was born in the Congo. She said she had always felt the need to speak out against things she thought were wrong. Her father backed her but her mother warned her she was limiting her marriage chances. She was first arrested at the age of 12.
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