By Evan Fowler, American University, AFJN Intern
Protecting women is a priority in the Congolese environment of insecurity where women are raped not only by those with guns, but unarmed civilians. Caritas Goma, a charitable ministry of the Catholic Diocese of Goma, in collaboration with other nonprofit organizations, is using art as a tool to fight against the rape pandemic in Democratic republic of Congo (DRC). They are producing posters designed by Congolese artists to discourage rape through visual representations. The posters are then distributed and displayed in schools, community centers and offices.
Women in the DRC and particularly in the North and South Kivu provinces face the evil of sexual violence every day. In late August at least 300 women were raped in and around Luvungi village and many more cases of rape were reported around the town of Uvira in South Kivu, according to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the DRC. Members of the rebel group of Mai Mai Cheka and the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR ) have been identified to be behind the Luvungi attack. The Mai Mai leader, rebel Mai Mai Cheka, Lieutenant Colonel Sadoke Kokunda Mayele, was arrested by UN peace keeping forces on Oct 6 in Walikale. The FDLR leader , Callixte Mbarushimana, was arrested in Paris, France and the International Criminal Court (ICC) charged him with war crimes and crimes against humanity “including murder, rape, persecution based on gender and extensive destruction of property committed by the FDLR in 2009.” according to The Seattle Times.
These incidents are proof that the war that started in 1996 is not over yet. The list of those committing these crimes is comprised of all kinds of rebel groups, the Congolese army, and many civilians. In the conflict in Congo, rape continues to be used as a weapon of war meant to destroy families, villages and the nation as a whole. These women are defenseless, and promises to protect them have been broken time and time again. The Congolese government is incapable and unwilling to take the measures needed to protect its citizens.Although the posters used by Caritas are depictions of what women victims of rape experience, they are not close to telling the horror that the victims go through. On the posters in French, English, and Swahili, the following words are written: “Rape: a crime against humanity,” “Stop! Let us respect the woman,” “To assault the woman is to destroy the nation.” and “Peace.” We know of the stories of the victims through their testimonies, their physical and mental wounds, films and pictures that make a direct allusion to the atrocity of sexual violence committed against them are rare. These posters are an attempt to put a face to the stories of the victims and also a way of spreading the message to the majority of Congolese who are illiterate. Thus, using art in combating rape in Congo is an effective tool.
Art as a means of communication is not foreign to the church. It is a big part of the evangelization toolkit, used to tell the story of salvation through stained glass windows and illuminated manuscripts, frescos, and icons. Today the church of Congo is using art for advocacy and social justice.
Caritas Goma’s use of graphic descriptions to draw attention to and address the problem of rape in the Congo is hard to ignore. The visually captivating images breaks the distance that separates those directly affected by the violence and those of us who live of miles away from the war zone. Drawn into the eloquent message of these images, we are reminded that all of us are one with these women and are called to stand by them in their plea for justice.
The people of the Congo are addressing the problem of violence against women through their art, as well as other local initiatives. It is our responsibility to use our influence where the people of the Congo have none—with our own state representatives in the House and Senate. With a united front, we can end the rape pandemic in the Congo.
Rape has always been and still is the fate of many women who are caught up in armed conflicts such as those in the Congo, Somalia and Sudan. There are many initiatives with the goal of ending violence against women. In February 2010 a group of lawmakers introduced a bill called “International Violence against women Act of 2010 (IVAWA) H.R 4594/S.2982 to the United States Congress, , but as of now it lacks support. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), If passed into law, this legislation would, among other things, allow the US “to coordinate USAID efforts to integrate gender in U.S. foreign assistance programs and policies…to develop a comprehensive five-year strategy for programs to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls in countries with severe levels of such violence…to coordinate efforts to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls internationally into existing foreign assistance programs.”Africa Faith and Justice Network urges all of its members as well as every concerned US citizen to call their Congressional representatives and ask them to cosponsor this bill.
By Evan Fowler, American University, AFJN Intern