A Champion for Congolese Women
Justine Bihama is making a difference at the world's epicenter of rape—in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is arguably the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. In armed conflict lasting more than 20 years, DRC citizens have endured heinous attacks, and brutal sexual violence against women has become the norm. Both armed rebels and government soldiers use rape as a form of social control. And the crime has become a commonplace occurrence among civilians, as individual assailants take advantage of the culture of impunity.
According to a 2011 study in The American Journal of Public Health, approximately 1,150 women are raped every day in the DRC. That’s close to 400,000 a year. By comparison, the estimated number of reported forcible rapes in the United States, with four times the population, is less than a fourth as many, at about 88,100 annually. (Due to the vast number of rapes that are not reported, these rates are both underestimations). The DRC, perhaps best understood as the world’s epicenter of rape, is the home of Congolese women’s rights activist Justine Bihamba.
Bihamba is the executive director of Synergie des Femmes pour les Victimes des Violences Sexuelles (Women's Synergy for Victims of Sexual Violence, or SFVS), a non-profit organization that attempts to deal with the rape epidemic in eastern Congo. During its ten years in operation, SFVS has developed psycho-social, medical, and legal defense programs to help heal the mental and physical wounds of women affected by sexual violence. With the commitment and tenacity of Justine Bihamba, and others like her, they have made great strides: strides that are disproportionately large compared to their limited resources. Bihamba reports that SFVS has reached over 13,000 women victims of sexual violence, ranging in age from ten months to 80 years. Her work is beyond admirable, and her achievements significant, but the sheer scope of mass rape in the Congo means that SFVS has a very long way to go.
Justine Bihamba explained to me that in her country, a woman who is raped is in fact victimized twice. Firstly, when the attack occurs, and once again when she is ostracized by her village, rejected by her husband, or humiliated by a legal system that penalizes rapists with hardly more than a slap on the wrist, if anything at all. The feeling of alienation and intimidation that rape victims suffer is not foreign to Bihamba, who has been targeted because of her outspoken crusade against sexual violence. She told me that Congolese women’s rights activists are harassed or raped in order to send a message that when women speak out against sexual violence, they will be punished with the very poison they seek the antidote for. Often even the families of these brave women discourage their work, because of an attitude rooted in traditions that consider women inferior, and because of the notoriety and danger such work provokes. The perception is that activism against sexual violence is both reckless and somehow frivolous.
When I first met Bihamba, attempting to conceptualize her reality was difficult. Fortunately, for me rape has never been much more than a scary word. That being said, once I began talking to her, I came to realize that I don’t have a single female friend who has not felt sexually threatened or violated in one way or another. For some it may have been a trusted older partner, who made them feel as though refusing to have sex at any point was a betrayal. For others, it may have been something as simple as an unwanted touch or menacing look at a party. These instances, though not nearly as extreme as sexual violence in the DRC, are nonetheless common threads that bind us together. They are not moments that we should devalue by deeming insignificant, they are shared intrusions into our personal worlds, that inextricably link our seemingly incomparable experiences as women.
With such shared existence, we women have the ability to look inside of ourselves and find a way to relate to one another empathically: as sisters, as extensions of ourselves. Rather than shy away from the tough truths and startling statistics of women in the DRC, we should truly attempt to take them to heart, to comprehend what they mean, to do something: make a donation to support Justine Bihamba's goals, or, if not in a position to give, spread the word, discuss with friends, or simply take a moment to think. The importance of the work of SFVS is unparalleled. It deserves not only attention and support, but also a sense of solidarity from a global community of women who can transcend difference and distance, and come to understand that the violation of women in the DRC may ostensibly only hurt those women involved, but in actuality, it disrespects us all.
To support Justine Bihamba and SFVS, visit Donor Direct Action and make a donation. If you’re not in a position to give, spread the word, discuss with your friends, or simply take a moment to think.
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