'Rape capital of the world' is in desperate need of help

REUTERS/Kenny KatombeA Congolese soldier is stripped of his rank and uniform after a court martial tried 39 soldiers for rapes and murders committed in North Kivu province.

Sometimes people get a bit snippy about international aid charities using 4x4s or Land Rovers, claiming we swan around looking busy and important instead of helping people.

Having just returned from the forests and jungle of the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), I can confirm we really need them.

When there's no other way to reach some of the country's poorest people than to drive along a rickety track made muddy by overnight rain, or when a road is blocked by a 30ft-tree blown down by a massive thunderstorm, you're glad that your vehicle has a bit of muscle and can cope with extreme conditions.

Because DRC is an extreme place. It's extremely beautiful, with stunning fast-flowing crocodile-infested rivers. Sometimes a bridge falls down, so there's a slightly unusual flatbed contraption with engines that they use to ferry vehicles across the water.

It's extremely rich in natural resources, with huge amounts of minerals. Literal goldmines beneath the ground.

It's extremely hot at certain times of year, and extremely rainy at others.

And, sadly, life is extremely brutal.

During the last few weeks, the town of Beni has been repeatedly attacked by militia. The photos of the raped, mutilated corpses of women and children are too awful to post here. You'll have to take my word for it.

It's only the tip of the iceberg. For years, DRC has been ravaged by war – conflicts within conflicts within conflicts – and it doesn't look like letting up any time soon.

Often used as a case-study for the tragedy of war-zone rape, DRC has been dubbed by some the 'rape capital of the world'. It's a classic example of the horrendous problems we gathered to discuss in June  at the Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict summit in London, hosted by then UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and actor Angelina Jolie.

The summit came up with an international protocol, describing ways to bring rapists and their commanders to justice with firm commitments to make it possible for sexual violence survivors to report crimes and get the help they need.

In DRC, rapists often insert a foreign object into the woman being raped. Gang rape is common, and weapons are used both to scare a woman into submission and to hurt her physically.

I say 'woman'. I wish I could tell you that children are free from this tyranny. But they're not. I really can't describe the vileness of what rapists did to an eight-year-old girl in DRC.

So it's reassuring that we're seeing encouraging signs from government departments, in the UK and in the countries we serve, following June's summit.

The UK's Department for International Development (DFID) today announces funding to help women and girls who've been raped to recover. Hospitals like Tearfund's partner HEAL Africa will continue carrying out reconstructive gynaecological surgery for women who have suffered internal injuries due to the brutality of their rape.

Churches will be funded to promote healthy and respectful family relationships, and to put together teams of volunteers to accompany rape survivors to report crimes and take the rapist to court.

Because of course, churches are uniquely placed to do the daily hand-holding that we all need from time to time, and women and girls in DRC particularly so.

Two weeks ago, I met 17 year old Genevieve [not her real name] who had fled with her family when her village was looted and the massacres started. They went to Kisangani, leaving behind their business and all their property so, in desperation, she started selling sex to help support her family.

When she became pregnant, her family asked her to have an abortion but she didn't want to so they threw her out. Her friends and the local church helped her through the pregnancy and birth and then the pastor went with her to introduce her parents to their new grandchild.

They're now reconciled and she's back in school.

Genevieve's story shows that there's more to war-zone rape than attacks by soldiers. The financial destitution of displacement, combined with a culture where war has reduced sex from a loving act to a vicious display of power, means transactional sex feels like the only way out of poverty for many women.

But, like Genevieve, people are finding that life doesn't have to stay that way.

And, bit by bit, governments, churches, community leaders, women, men, children in DRC stubbornly persist in believing that the future can be better than the past.

The summit in June was an outstanding display of passion, unity and expertise. I'm so glad it wasn't a one-hit wonder. The millions of people living in the world's hardest places need it to be more than that.

Katie Harrison is Tearfund's head of communications.

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