Twelve hundred people crowded into Brisbane Convention Centre Ballroom to mark International Woman’s Day on March 5, 2009. They had come to hear Lulu Mitshabu, Program Coordinator Africa for Caritas Australia, talk about the Democratic Republic of Congo. Perhaps few would have anticipated how dreadful her story would be. Or had truly understood before that the Congo is a country where rape has been organised and harnessed as a weapon of war.
It is also a country where an estimated 1,200 civilians die each day. So as Lulu Mitshabu spoke to the audience - stunned into silence by the things she had to say - ironically and unwittingly it also represented the same numbers as one day’s death toll in the Congo.
Almost four million people died during the second Congo war, and 2.1 million poverty and conflict-related deaths have occurred subsequently.
An estimated 80 per cent of the DRC population is now living below the poverty line; more than 70 per cent of people are undernourished. Life expectancy is just 47 years, with latest statistics suggesting that 20 per cent of children do not live until the age of five.
The deaths are mostly from conflict-related causes: preventable diseases, poverty, atrocities and gender-based violence.
But what Lulu Mitshabu had come to tell her audience about was rape - rape on a massive scale. She described how in the Congo tens of thousands of people had been systematically raped, with entire communities held hostage.
Rape was being used as a weapon of war to achieve the aims of the government and the military, she said. Women became vulnerable when they went to wells for water; girls were vulnerable going to and from school. The situation was so bad it had become more dangerous for those women than for a soldier on the front line.
“It is sex slavery and forced prostitution to achieve government and military aims,” she said. Women were sometimes raped by as many as 20 men. The women’s ages ranged from under six months to over 70. Young girls were captured to be used as sex slaves.
Women were beaten. Women were raped in front of their families and husbands. There were incidents of cutting and penetration of vaginas with knives and other objects. It resulted in families becoming traumatised for the rest of their lives. Many men became deeply affected because they were unable to protect their wives and daughters.
The objective of such massive rape was to destabilise opposition groups, she said. It was creating a public health crisis. Serious physical problems often resulted, including the spread of HIV-AIDS currently affecting about 60 per cent of the population, as well as other diseases; some young girls suffered from fistula conditions. A great many infections went unreported because people did not seek medical help, either because they could not afford it or were not able to reach it.
Caritas offers medical counselling. Additional information coming from the Congo indicates many children were being raised by mothers whose pregnancy resulted from being raped. There are worries that an extended cycle of abuse and violence would imbue younger generations with an accustomed sensibility, meaning that without intervention, the incidence of rape would continue to remain high.
Lulu Mitshabu was born in the Congo. She said she had always felt the need to speak out against things she thought were wrong. Her father backed her but her mother warned her she was limiting her marriage chances. She was first arrested at the age of 12.
She told the audience she had made a promise she would tell the women’s story. But because of speaking out, she eventually had to run for her life and when she fled the Congo, she had to sell her children’s shoes to pay to cross the border. She now has six daughters and works with Caritas Australia.
She said the role of the multinational mining companies had to be addressed before the conflict in the Congo could end. She called on Australians and mining company shareholders to persuade Australian companies involved in Congo mining to sign on to the Extraction Industry’s Transparency Initiative. In that way the companies could avoid signing contracts with rebel groups.
The DRC is one of the richest countries in Africa in its resources and natural abundance. The mineral assets are huge, the southern province of Katanga alone is estimated to have 34 per cent of the world’s known cobalt reserves and 10 per of the world’s copper. This is matched by impressive agricultural lands and forests second only to the Amazon basin in size and reserves of timber.
This potential wealth has been described as the scourge of DRC since initial encounters with Europeans. In recent times it has fuelled a bitter and extended series of conflicts compounded by dictatorial government and entrenched corruption. Few benefits reach the general population.
Caritas Congo reported that fighting had continued despite the Congolese Government’s approval of a UN ceasefire plan for all sides to withdraw their forces by September 17, 2008. This followed an initial signing of a ceasefire in January 2008.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently visited North Kivu, where clashes between the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) and the mainly Tutsi rebel group known as the National Congress in Defence of the People (CNDP), have taken place over the past six months, displacing about 250,000 people, on top of the 800,000 already uprooted in the province.
He and Mrs Ban Soon-taek visited some of the women and girls who have been victims of sexual violence at the Heal Africa Hospital, in the provincial capital of Goma. (February 2009).
According to the UN Children’s Fund, an estimated 200,000 women and girls have been assaulted in the past 12 years. Sexual violence is known to be prevalent throughout Congolese society, but the area most affected has been the eastern part of the country, particularly the Kivu region.
After her Brisbane address, Ms Mitshabu said that she believed the mandate of UN peacekeepers should be strengthened and their numbers increased. As things stood, the UN peacekeepers could only observe what was going on but could not protect citizens. Peacekeepers were also in need of more training in gender abuse situations, she said.
There was massive rape continuing in the Congo but there were no headlines, she said. The Congo story did not get much coverage because she thought the media had become de-sensitised.
“People don’t want to hear,” she said. “The story is so dreadful.”
Congolese people had the capability of developing their country but they needed funds through NGOs. But even more, they needed people to constantly advocate on their behalf - to tell their story.
She called on her audience to speak out about the Congo rapes and to tell Australia’s Foreign Minister, politicians, radio stations, local papers and parishes how, in the 21st century, massive rape was being used as a weapon of war.
“It is silent genocide,” she said.