On Thursday, June 30, Africa Faith and Justice Network staff and interns attended a panel discussion at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars entitled “Sexual Violence and the Political and Security Implications in the Congo.” Panelists included Maria Otero, the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, Dr. Denis Mukwege, Director of Panzi Hospital in the South Kivu Province and recent recipient of the King Baudouin International Development Prize and Mark Schneider, the Senior Vice President of the International Crisis Group. Also in attendance was Dr. Faida Mitifu, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC’s) Ambassador to the United States.

Combating sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo continues to be an enormous challenge for both the country and for the international community. The Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported on July 4 that 248 women have reported being raped by soldiers in the DRC in June 2011 alone. This figure includes the June 11-12 mass rape in which 121 women were victimized in the village of Nakiele in the Fizi territory of the South Kivu province.

Dr. Mukwege is a native of the South Kivu province and currently the director of the Panzi Hospital, a treatment center providing free care for survivors of sexual violence. Specializing in gynecology and obstetrics, Dr. Mukwege has been treating Congolese women since 1989. Today, he is considered an expert on the treatment of the pathological and psychological damage caused by gang rapes and sexual violence. He has set up a training unit to enhance the quality of medical care in eastern Congo and continues to publicly campaign against the unbelievable violence that Congolese women continue to face.

As someone who witnesses the effects of sexual violence in eastern Congo every day, Dr. Mukwege spoke of the lasting impact that rape has on these women and the need for the rapists to be brought to justice. He described the mass rapes as preconceived weapons of war, citing the planned nature of these attacks as well as the political and economic destruction that they bring.

Mark Schneider addressed this point as well, emphasizing the necessity for comprehensive justice reform in Congo in order to hold perpetrators accountable for heinous crimes. Maria Otero commented on the need for improved capacity amongst local police to guarantee security for the Congolese population.

Finally, Dr. Mukwege urged international donors to DRC and foreign governments to implement a more coordinated strategy between their organizations and the local population. Both Mark and Dr. Mukwege agreed that there is a need for security reform which includes women, not only because they are systematically victimized but also because they have been historically excluded from the state’s decision-making process. The panelists and the ambassador agreed that aid funds need to be allocated more effectively and better strategies for eliminating sexual violence in the DRC need to be implemented.

On Friday evening, a special reception honoring Dr. Mukwege was held at the Belgium Embassy in Washington, DC. Guests that evening included Fr. Rocco Puopolo, the AFJN Director, a number of ambassadors, as well as personnel from the World Bank and State Department. Remarks both by the Belgium ambassador and Dr. Mukwege underlined the importance of addressing this issue of rape being used as a weapon of war. A special documentary film was shown on the work of the Panzi Hospital. Fr. Rocco’s presence at the event is a testament of AFJN’s committed response to Dr. Mukwege’s call for advocacy to better educate people on the issue, advocate for peace and restoration, and end the rape pandemic in DRC. As one guest said: “The time is right. Let’s not lose the chance.”

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Also read:

Forty-eight women raped every hour in Congo, study finds

United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report to Congressional Committees. Information on the Rate of Sexual Violence in War-Torn Eastern DRC and Adjoining Countries