The Inter Press Service (IPS) posted an article on April 18 about the responses to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in several central African countries and it has been picked up by many organizations and blogs (e.g. AWID, womensphere, The Advocates for Human Rights).
I was encouraged to read about both the top-down and a bottom-up approaches underway in the area to address sexual violence, which I think are equally important for effective change. Having legal structures in place regarding all forms of sexual violence against women is vital for preventing aggressors from acting with impunity, and may provide some preventative dissuasion. And public services are essential for dealing with the aftermath. On the other hand, changing attitudes is a slower process, and immensely difficult, but it offers the only hope of clipping sexual violence in the early stages before it can grow and take root.
At the state level, a Regional Gender Programme has just been launched by the Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development (ACORD), targeting five countries: DRC, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Gender and human rights experts from these countries met in Nairobi last April to find ways of challenging the the impunity for sexual and gender-based violence in the Great Lakes region. They plan to audit all public sectors including health and police services and the existing legislation in each country to document how they handle sexual violence.
The ACORD initiative is also piloting a bottom-up approach in five provinces of Burundi through its Agents of Change programme. Its central philosophy is that changing attitudes towards sexual violence and the rights of women begins at home. Couples are trained to spread anti-SGBV messages to their households with the aim of reaching at least ten people. These ten people will in turn act as “agents of change” to ten others in the extended family, and so on, recursively reaching the entire community.
Marie-Josée Bimansha is a female judge–the only one–presiding over the High Court of DRC, and president of the National Association of Women Judges of DRC. Although rape in DRC carries a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment, and if a victim dies as a result of the crime, it becomes a capital offence, Bimansha says that a lack of funds for investigations means that fewer cases are convicted and sentenced.
She also said that because there is no money to conduct investigations, the courts must rely on evidence from the police, who are mostly men and some of them do not even believe there is rape.
This vote of non-confidence is a severe blow for the health, safety and well-being of women and the protection of their human rights. At a time when all community leaders, security forces, heads of state and international bodies need to immediately recognize the sexual violence crisis in the DRC and neighbouring regions and call for action, it is unconscionable to remain indifferent, or, worse, in denial.
Ugandan participants of the April meeting reported that district commissioners have dismissed sexual and gender-based violence as non-existent, asking that donor funds for psychosocial support for survivors of SGBV be directed to other sectors.
However, Pader, for example, is one of the worst affected districts by the 20-year old conflict between government forces and Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, where forces from the two sides have been accused of numerous atrocities against civilians. Women and girls have been beaten, raped and maimed in horrific ways. Last year, 300 of the 412 reported gender-based violence cases in Pader involved rape.
And a recent study by Hustache et al. conducted among sexual violence survivors in Brazzaville, Congo, “found the benefits of post-rape psychological support to be present and lasting in this conflict situation”. They evaluated 178 patients who had been raped by unknown persons in military clothing and admitted to MSF’s program for sexual violence survivors in Brazzaville. Among this group, 54.1% suffered from anxious disorders (54.1%) and 24.6% were afflicted with acute stress disorders. Out of 56 women evaluated prior to treatment, 50 women (89.3%) had extreme or medium impairment, and after psychological care, this number fell to 16 (28.6%), an improvement that was fully maintained 1-2 years later.
These results are encouraging, and more data of this sort is vital for lobbying for funding to keep existing psychosocial services alive as well as creating new ones. The data collected by ACORD in the Great Lakes region will add much-needed information to the dearth of documentation available on SGBV, and will arm policy reformists in battles to convince officials that sexual violence is real and needs their support.