YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Conflict in the South Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has caused “pervasive” gender-based violence, according to Catholic aid groups.

South Kivu is in eastern Congo, and borders both Rwanda and Burundi. The ethnic conflicts in those two countries in the 1990’s spilled over into the province, with fighting continuing in the province to this day.

“South Kivu Province is plagued by recurrent conflict, displacement, and human rights violations; political institutions in the region are fragile and need support to combat discrimination, inequality and poverty,” said Percy Patrick, the program manager for the Democratic Republic of the Congo for SCIAF, the international aid agency of the Scottish bishops.

He noted that armed groups often clash with the Congolese army over mineral resources, and sexual and gender-based violence is a “pervasive problem.”

“Rape is used as a weapon of war,” Patrick said, noting that some 40 percent of women in the province have suffered sexual violence in their lifetime.

“The effects of sexual violence on women and their families are devastating,” he said. “Survivors suffer physical injuries and mental trauma and are unable to access the specialist help that they need or to live a normal life.”

What follows are excerpts of Crux’s conversation with Patrick.

Crux: How large an issue is sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

Patrick: SCIAF is working in South Kivu Province in the Eastern DRC.

South Kivu Province is plagued by recurrent conflict, displacement, and human rights violations; political institutions in the region are fragile and need support to combat discrimination, inequality, and poverty. Armed groups are still active in parts of the intervention areas, sporadically clashing with FARDC [Congolese army], mainly for control over mineral resources. Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) is a pervasive problem, where rape is used as a weapon of war. Some 40 percent of women in the province have suffered sexual violence in their lifetime, usually rape (UK Home Office 2018).

South Kivu has an internally displaced population of 647,000, the second largest in DRC, with 50 percent being women and children (UN OCHA 2018). Internal displacement and conflict have left many women more vulnerable to SGBV as they no longer have the protection of family/communities. It has the highest level of food insecurity, at 64 percent; 33 percent female-headed households, of whom 53 percent are illiterate; and only 5 percent of the province has paved/unpaved roads (WFP 2014).

Data is scarce but in 2010, Johnson et. Al. found 31 percent of women in eastern DRC were affected by conflict-related sexual violence. In 2017 there were 5,783 incidents of SGBV in conflict-affected provinces, 72 percent attributed to armed groups (UN 2018). UNFPA cited 4,700 cases in North and South Kivu in quarter one of 2017.

SCIAF has met with some of the abused women. What stories do they tell?

Women experiences helplessness, inequality and discriminated by everyone, including their family members, society and decision-makers. There is no way to go and receive support and guidance.

Is it only violence that is driving such abuse or are there other factors?

Poverty, mineral, ignorance and inability of the state to uphold the law and order situation, poor justice system, slow or lack of justice, impunity and limited political will are other factors responsible for violence.

Why do combatants use rape as a weapon of war?

Unquestionable control over mineral resources, spreading fear so they can do whatever they want.

What impact does abuse have on the victims and society?

Due to conflict and insecurity, large numbers of people have migrated away from their villages to more secure areas and there has been a massive growth of new neighborhoods in towns such as Bukavu. With a breakdown in the usual social structures due to shifting populations and with rapidly built, poor quality housing and sanitation, the new neighborhoods are often the most insecure and lawless.

Domestic abuse is rarely reported in DRC since marital rape is not considered to be a criminal offence. Fear of shame, stigma, reprisals and the desire to protect family honor are further major barriers to revealing what has happened: Women have no rights to property or inheritance and are frightened of being evicted from their homes and losing their children and families if they say anything.

The effects of sexual violence on women and their families are devastating. Survivors suffer physical injuries and mental trauma and are unable to access the specialist help that they need or to live a normal life. Physical injuries are common and can involve serious internal damage such as fistula with double incontinence. This commonly results in terrible stigmatization and exclusion from family and community life.

In addition, survivors may have sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and AIDS, or become pregnant. Women survivors are often blamed for the rape and if their families – husband, brothers, or parents – find out, they can be rejected and treated as an outcast or thrown out as they are perceived to have brought shame and dishonor on the family.

The mental trauma of both the rape and subsequent family reactions often results in SGBV survivors developing post-traumatic stress disorder where they experience severe feelings of anxiety, stress and fear that interfere with their daily activities such as sleeping and eating. Frightening thoughts can result in angry outbursts, feeling tense, guilty or depressed.

The combined effects of rape mean that the lives of thousands of women – their health, dignity, self-confidence, opportunities for generating an income, social status and ability to participate in family and community life – are destroyed.

Because of these negative social consequences and the stigma attached, many women try to hide what has happened if they can but it has a serious bearing on them and their families. Even with medical, psychological, or legal help and support, the impact on the survivors is often long-lasting. With little or no access to trained services, it can take years of support for the survivors to even start to recover.

What in particular have you been doing in the DRC to help victims overcome trauma?

We are working in South Kivu province, with local Church partners who come under the umbrella of the Catholic Church and have a strong grassroots base across South Kivu. For maximum impact and sustainability, we are building on existing Church structures/network/influence to complement and fill gaps in the National SGBV strategy.

SCIAF is using a six-pillar approach to enhance capacity and access to services – psychosocial, health, legal, and socio-economic – in order to protect and respond holistically to SGBV survivors’ needs, combined with gender transformative action to tackle some of the underlying drivers of SGBV, and protection and prevention.

This model is built on an Integral Human Development (IHD) framework aimed at sustained change of the whole person based on human dignity/equality and is survivor-centered.

Our holistic approach recognizes that SGBV survivors face multiple reinforcing disadvantages such as extreme poverty, gender inequality and disability, and ensures we ‘leave no one behind’ through inclusion of extremely vulnerable groups. Interwoven throughout this approach is stigma reduction, disability inclusion and gender equality.

The first step of the six-pillar/IHD approach is to enhance the capacity of service providers – doctors, nurses, psychosocial aides, police, army, judges, and paralegals – to respond effectively to SGBV survivors and uphold their protection/rights by delivering training to increase their knowledge, skills and attitudes. Thus, contributing to the provision of appropriate quality medical and legal care for survivors of SGBV and children born of rape.

The second step is to enhance access to holistic coordinated services for survivors through various means. Improve the physical, emotional, legal and socioeconomic status of survivors and their children born of rape. Existing listening centers inside health centers/parishes will act as hubs for: assessment, psychosocial support, guidance and accompaniment of health care; legal support and family reconciliation; home visits to survivors where support for family mediation and reintegration is needed; or referral for group therapy or more specialized care via mental health/disability centers.

There is also provision of legal services is helping survivors to prosecute their attackers and secure birth certificates/legal citizenship for children born of rape and gain access to rights/services on the same basis as other children. Socioeconomically empowerment includes income generation support, solidarity savings and loans groups, livestock provision/management, and micro-businesses to improve gender relations/women’s status.