As efforts continue to try to end the conflict in the eastern DRC, the toll the fighting has taken on civilians grows higher. And both women and men have been victims of rape and sexual violence.
Christine Karumba is the DRC country director for the NGO Women for Women. On Wednesday she visited camps for the displaced in the Goma area and spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about what women in the camps told her.
"The women I met at the three camps were fearing for their safety. So, even if they are in the displaced camps, still they feel not secure at all…. Nothing is secure. Anything can happen to us at any time," she says.
Asked about the condition of the women she's met, she says, "Really, today I was very shocked because if I see five women, three were pregnant. And if she's not pregnant, she's carrying a baby of under one year old. Today we had 60 women coming to collect their sponsorship funds and among them 35 women were pregnant or coming with a baby. So, they are carrying precious treasure, which is a child," she says.
Some of the women in one of the camps have been there for a year. "Some of them gave birth in the IDP (internally displaced persons) camp. So, I was wondering…(what) will be the future of these newborns who have been born in the camp, where they don't have enough food…proper sanitation. They don't have even access to education. I don't know how to describe this situation…. Every time when I go to these women it's like myself I'm dying. I'm dying. I don't know from where we should start to build up hope for these women," she says.
While none of the women she met Wednesday said their pregnancies resulted from rape, many said they knew someone who did become pregnant that way. Karumba says that those women face stigma and discrimination at every level. Often the first to reject a woman who's been raped is her husband. She says, "It's really very dangerous for these women to be discriminated (against), separated from their families…illiterate, being not able to take care of themselves."
Karumba says many men not only have been forced to watch their wives, girlfriends and daughters be raped by armed fighters, but also have been raped themselves. "I met some men who were really traumatized because of being raped.… The rape had been used like a weapon to exercise power and to have control over a community. The men who have been victims of rape, it's like they no longer exist. It's like, I am a man, but I am no longer a man because of what happened to me," she says.
Some men, like women, had been disfigured by their attackers. "I saw…a man (whose) private parts were cut. And they raped him.… So, this man didn't even want to talk to anybody. So, for me to come closer to this man I have to say, Look, we are together in this battle and you have to make sure you don't hide what happened to you so that together we may fight to eradicate this," she says.
She says that the trauma for men who have been raped and for those forced to watch loved ones raped is high: "the entire community has been affected."
Karumba has also spoken to men who've committed rapes in the eastern DRC. However, she does not condemn them. "Men are forgotten. Even if the (rapists) are men, we don't have to stigmatize men as actors of rape, as actors of wars. We have to bring them closer to our programs so that they may understand their roles. Then they may understand the need of changing attitudes. They may understand the need of being an actor to build up peace at each level," she says.
Ignorance contributes to the problem. Karumba explains what some men told her about why they raped at gunpoint. "Because when I have a gun I have control over the land. And I have to make sure I exercise my power."She says that the men never considered they might be infected with HIV, the AIDS virus, during the rape. "Sometimes ignorance leads people to act. And if we can fight and attack the ignorance, then we can promote behavior change and it can be a safe place for the women," she says.