Congolese rape survivors band together to change country’s future

Congolese rape survivors band together to change country’s future

This is an image from promotional material for a new movie titled "Sema," which is Swahili for "Speak Out." The movie, which was screened March 8, 2020, at the D.C. Independent Film Festival in Washington, is about Congolese rape survivors and illustrates the scope of the issue of sexual violence in Congo. (Credit: CNS photo/SEMA.)

A new movie screened March 8 at the D.C. Independent Film Festival in Washington, "Sema" -- Swahili for "Speak Out" -- illustrates the scope of the issue of rape culture in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

WASHINGTON, D.C.  — There is no easy way to say it: Tatiana Mukanire was brutally raped in her village in Congo.

Sadly, what happened to her is not an isolated incident. Rapes, including gang rapes, have become all too common both in isolated villages and in the nation’s cities.

A new movie screened March 8 at the D.C. Independent Film Festival in Washington, “Sema” — Swahili for “Speak Out” — illustrates the scope of the issue.

Village scenes were filmed in Mukanire’s own home village of Kombo. Urban scenes were shot in the city of Bukavu. Even more telling: About 90 percent of the actors in the movie have themselves been the victims of sexual violence — and the victims’ own children played the kids’ roles in “Sema,” Mukanire said during a post-screening discussion.

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While the film is fiction, what is depicted on screen is typical: Women who are raped are shunned, as are the children who are the products of the rapes. The village boy is called “snake” instead of his name. “The child of a snake is a snake,” declares one village woman, who repeatedly tells her own son not to play with the child. The rape victim’s husband left her after she and five other village women were assaulted while tending the fields.

In a parallel plot development in Bukavu, Kimia, a college student who was raped, cannot bring herself to love the daughter born of the rape. Both she and the village woman are infected with HIV.

In an interview with Catholic News Service, Mukanire said there can be great pressure to abort the child. “It’s not easy living with people pointing fingers at you all day,” she said through an interpreter. Many, though, resist such pressure.

The issue of sexual violence in Congo gained a bigger stage when Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Christian, was awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in educating people about sexual violence, especially during wartime.

International law and the United Nations define eight forms of conflict-related sexual violence: rape, sexual slavery, prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity.

The foundation that bears Mukwege’s name has a four-point plan of care for the survivors of wartime sexual violence: universal access to holistic care, universal access to reparations, accountability for perpetrators — be they individuals or governments — and organizing rape survivors to speak out and act.

A second foundation established by Mukwege, the Panzi Foundation, seeks to eliminate the use of rape as a weapon of war. Based in Bukavu with offices in Washington and The Hague, Netherlands, this foundation seeks to buttress medical treatment at Mukwege’s hospital, provide psychological support and community reintegration services to survivors, and connect them with legal services.

The success of those legal services is at best mixed. One sequence in “Sema” shows the rape trial of Kimia’s rapist, who had paid $40 in U.S. currency to rent a police uniform so he could act with impunity. It turned out a $100 bribe to the judicial panel hearing the trial was enough to get the defendant off scot-free.

Mukanire told CNS that Congo’s rape culture is fueled by foreign investors’ money — and, at 20 years and counting, may threaten an entire generation. “If police and military can act with impunity, civilians think they can get away with it,” she said.

She added, though, she is one of 3,500 women who have been trained thus far to speak out through Mukwege’s foundation and are teaching their own children to be “a generation of hope.”

When she saw “Sema” for the first time, she said, “it was as if I was reliving my experience.” But her second viewing, in Washington, on International Women’s Day, was “better,” she remarked. “I was more comfortable, and there were many women in the audience.”


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