As part of its campaign against rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the United Nations and its partners this week opened a centre in the eastern city of Bukavu to provide a safe haven and training programmes for survivors of sexual violence.
The City of Joy, a joint project of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the non-governmental organization V-Day, will serve 180 women between the ages of 14 and 35 every year with psychotherapy and extensive training comprising literacy, economics and sexuality education in a country where the use of rape as a weapon of war has victimized hundreds of thousands of women, particularly in the conflict-torn east.
“Tragic as it is that a centre like this is needed, I am grateful to the individuals and organisations that have made the City of Joy happen, not least the women themselves,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallström said at the ceremony.
“Congolese women are vital to the future of this country. Women carry the children, they carry the water, they carry the produce, they carry everything. Now on top of all of this, they have to carry the misplaced shame of sexual violence. That is not right.”
City of Joy marks the latest chapter in the ongoing campaign, ‘Stop Raping our Greatest Resource: Power to the Women and Girls of DRC,’ which V-Day and UNICEF launched in 2007. The new project will provide a powerful platform for women’s empowerment.
“I would like to recognize and pay tribute to the courage of the survivors who have broken the silence of sexual violence in DRC through their testimonies, starting in Goma, Bukavu and Kinshasa,” UNICEF Country Representative Philippe Heffinck said.
“Rape is a crime and should be treated as such each time it happens. Turning back the tide of impunity is a long fight, and each arrest, each sentence, when done properly, is a victory for justice.”
Author and V-Day founder Eve Ensler called the opening “the moment where women of the Congo turn their pain to power, where they who have suffered so deeply, so invisibly, will claim their rights, their bodies and their future.”
An estimated 200,000 women have been raped in the DRC during the last 12 years. Just since the beginning of the year, 120 alleged cases of rape have been perpetrated by both rebels and the national army in the eastern region, where more than 300 civilians, including some boys and men, were raped in a single weekend last summer by members of rebel armed groups.
Also this week in northern DRC, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) presented survivors of a mass rape in 2003 with a boat which they will use to transport goods to market in support of their income-generating activities.
More than 100 women from Songo Mboyo, a remote village in the Equateur Province, were victims. Late last year, some testified before a High-Level Panel, convened by OHCHR, that although 29 had successfully taken their cases to court and been awarded indemnities in 2006, the money was never paid by the government.
Others testified that while they went to court seeking justice, the perpetrators were never arrested, stressing that they needed more direct aid and reparations to rebuild their lives.
“You are an example for women who stand up for their rights,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a message to the hand-over ceremony on Monday, applauding the victims’ courage and determination. “Many of you have suffered not only from sexual violence but afterwards from the stigma of sexual violence.
“I know that the Panel met with many men in this country who work hard to assist victims of sexual violence, and husbands who have protected and supported their wives who had been raped, despite the social pressure to reject them. These are the men of the future. They should be seen as role models for all.”