Wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, especially in the East, are not only political. There are also wars to gain access to this land for some, and to maintain control over that land for others. Given the power struggles at stake, we became aware that in African culture generally, but especially in Congolese culture, women are a treasure. The woman represented part of the pride of the man who possessed her.
Therefore, a way to humiliate and destroy your enemy and to take control of his space has been identified: touch the sorest point, take the women, the daughters, rape them systematically in front of their men. After that, the kids who lived through that are transformed into war machines, into killing machines. It is done in a systematic manner, violence is used to show your victory over the opposing sides.
We live in a patriarchal system where there are many “values”, in quotation marks, which define what a woman must be. How she must behave, what she must do and the fault of having been raped is put entirely on the woman, who is the victim of this situation.
A woman who got raped is dead. She does not live anymore. After suffering such an act, we don’t live anymore. We breath, we survive. Often, it’s for others. Not for yourself. If we have children, if we have a family, it’s for these people that we keep breathing.
We have Dr. Mukwege, the Nobel Prize laureate. For us, it is an acknowledgment that this suffering does in fact exist. When someone who helps alleviate the women’s suffering was recognized, we felt relieved.
We must not stop until this genocide is recognized. That is why the DRC has been named the capital of rape, it is genocide.
ANNY, 37 years old, Congolese. Director and founder of AFIA MAMA, a feminist association for women’s rights.
I realized I was different at the age of 14 years old. I knew it, but I did not have anybody to talk to, until I started to get on well with a girl from school. We became friends. I did not know how to tell her what I was feeling. One day, while my mom was out, we saw a scene in a romantic movie on TV where two girls were kissing each other. We kissed too.
In Cameroon, there is a law forbidding people from the same sex to have a relationship. Our relationship was our secret, we did not talk about it in public, we never held hands in public. People thought we were best friends. We kept the secret until my eighteenth birthday.
We were coming back from the university. My mother was away. We went to a restaurant and after that, we decided to go to my house. We thought we were safe there. Suddenly, we heard loud knocks on the door. It was the police. I don’t know who told them. Maybe the neighbors. We got followed, a policewoman had been observing us for a few days.
The police arrested us. While we were being dragged to the closest police station, really near to our house, the neighbors got out and threw rocks at us, cursing at us. “We knew it, witches, do not come back, they must be cured”. They were saying they would strip us in public. There was no one we could tell what was happening. We got put into different cells.
We were tortured. Me, at least. I do not know what she was subjected to. I never saw her again. They did everything they could so that we would not see each other again. It was worse for me, because I think her parents and brother were a little empathetic to her situation. They could defend her and take care of her. There was no one to come get me. I stayed there for one month. It was terrible.
They tortured me, they forced me to do things that I had never done before. I don’t know how to say it. I don’t want to talk about it. I was still a virgin at the time, I had never been out with a man. I stayed there and the men would enter one at a time. They would tell me: “I am going to give you a lesson. I think you will like it because you have never had an experience with a man. When you will leave this cell, you will not want to be with a woman ever again.”.
DORINE, 26 years old, Cameroonian.
At the university, I was being hit on by boys. I was trying to be normal, to hide, to dress like the other girls… I tried to go out with boys or to respond to their advances, but I could not do it. I was afraid of people, of the police. There were rumors that I was gay. There was this boy whose advances I had been refusing for a long time. We were in the same class. He raped me. He had heard the rumors and called that a “sexual correction”.
He threatened to tell on me, to call the police…Finally, I told on him. But when I explained to my father that I had been raped because I was gay, he did not take me seriously. For him, it was better to have been raped than being gay. Upon my uncle’s advices, he took me to see some sort of a healer. I was scared. This healer got me completely undressed. He took leaves that he had soaked and hit me while talking in a language I did not understand. It was supposed to “correct” me.
My coming out, the rape, the imprisonment, that was the worst time of my life. I was scared, I did not know what to do. Three or four months later, I found out I was pregnant. I wanted to get an abortion. It is weird to say that because today, I love my son. But they did not let me do it. They thought that maybe it would cure me. My father tried to get in touch with his family. Not to tell on him or to tell his family what he had done to me, but to talk, to tell them he got me pregnant and ask them if he would marry me…
We cannot live in hiding all of our life. When you are gay, you get humiliated, people talk behind your back, you are afraid of going out when people know. Where I come from, homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment. We see it like that, like something evil, some kind of possession.
Right now, in Kenya, we are trying to abrogate the article from the Penal Code that criminalizes homosexuality. I am not part of the group that is working on this abrogation, but I am in touch with two of them from London. They have been fighting this for years and years.
DIANA, 28 years old, Kenyan.
DORINE and DIANA have both escaped their country of origin where homosexuality is criminalized.
My parents were wonderful. At school, I had good grades, but then I met my husband and I wanted to marry him. The fact that I was born in Nadezhda district might have influenced me. Traditionally, it’s the population itself that decides it, people think that it is normal, that this is the way. My parents were strongly against our marriage, but I insisted. They finally gave in and we got married. He was 18 years old and I was 14 years old.
I strongly oppose the idea of getting married that young. Of course, once married, you take care of your family, like a good homemaker. Then the children come, because everybody, the mother-in-law, the father-in-law, the community, wants grandchildren.
My father in law, who was 47 years old at the time, registered at school to finish his secondary education. Then, my husband did the same. That made me want to finish my secondary education too, but I did not dare talking about it because women are not allowed to study here. It is my husband who enrolled me, without telling me, in evening classes. At the beginning, everybody was against it. But my husband and I never gave up.
I finished my secondary education and I enrolled in medical school at the university of Varna. I got admitted with an overall average of 5.25/6 and specialized in becoming a midwife. I have started my fourth and last year, I am an intern. At the end of my residency, I will be a graduate. It is thanks to my husband I have done all that.
My boys are 9 and 5 years old. We moved to another district, so they are not influenced by this environment. I’ll do all my best, like my husband, to educate my sons and turn them into full citizens of Bulgaria.
MAGDALENA, 28 years old. Magdalena grew up inside the Rom ghetto of the city of Sliven, east Bulgaria, where most of the girls get married in their teens.
I must speak out as a single woman without a husband. I must be heard so nobody harms my children. For everything. Our life in Syria and our life here, everything is so different. We had houses. Now we find ourselves in a camp, with nothing. We lost everything.
Thank God, we are alive, and we grin and bear it. But I do not want to be silent. I want to defend my rights. Because it is women who bring forth life, who raise the children, who support the family, who are the foundation of everything. Women represent half of society. They must have more rights.
People say: “She is a woman, why is she raising her voice? The woman should not be talking. She’s got sons, they can talk”. But I answer: “No, it is my responsibility to defend my children. I am the woman and the man”. That is what I tell them all the time: “I am the woman and the man, and I defend my children”.
It was June. It was 8 PM. It was dark outside. We were at home. Some Raia Mtomboki arrived and entered. They grabbed my husband, they stabbed him in the neck and killed him. Then, they grabbed me and told me that they were going to kill me too, in front of my three kids: two boys and one girl. But they took me and raped me in the forest. Many died, they burnt down many houses, and little kids, adults and old people were killed, but me, they raped me.
I am at eight months…eight months ago they did that to me. When I think about it, I get overwhelmed by sadness. This child, I am going to look after him, like I take care of the other ones, and I am going to raise him well, because I am alive, thanks to God. I cannot discriminate against him, or treat him differently than the others, he is himself a child. But later, when he is going to ask me who his father is, when he will be the age of reason? How am I going to answer him?
I cannot go back to my husband’s village. Over there, they will first say that I am a Raia Mtomboki woman. Then, they will say I cannot carry a child if I don’t know about his family. I don’t think about getting remarried, or about being with a man, or being in a relationship. I only think about taking care of my children. That’s all I can think about.
ÉLYSÉE, Congolese. Élysée has been taken in and cared for by the hospital of Panzi where Dr. Mukwege repairs women.
In 1995, I was sexually assaulted by the FARC, who predominantly occupied the Territory of Cauca Valley. I was out shopping for breakfast when they kidnapped me. There were several of them, and I could not defend myself.
It has always been difficult to talk about it. After being raped, you feel very bad, you feel dirty, it is horrible. You think that everything is falling apart. They kept me for two days in the mountains, and they did to me whatever they wanted to. I never said anything to my family, nor to anyone. In fact during all this time, the only ones who realised that there was something going on were my bosses because they saw in what condition I came back, the day FARC threw me on the road. They hit me, they abused me, they insulted me. I, for fear of retaliation against my family, did not say anything.
After that, I tried to resume a normal life. Until the move…My children had become men. My oldest son was about 20, 21 years old. The FARC tried to recruit him. He did not want to and neither did I. A friend then told me that they planned to kill my son, because he had not join them: “get the kid out of here because they are going to kill him”. He was a very dear friend of mine, very close to us. That night, he left for work and they killed him. They had found out he had warned me. They hung a sign on him saying he was a cockroach.
In the morning, I was on my way to the city hall when two men on a motorcycle, wearing a balaclava, stopped me and threatened me. They said I had 24 hours to flee with my son, otherwise, my family would have to deal with the consequences. I kept on going, scared, up to the city hall where a magistrate gave me a letter saying I could it use anywhere to file a complaint and explain why I got moved. Then, my son and I, we disguised ourselves, we got in a taxi, and the police escorted us for part of the way.
We had enough to go all the way to La Tebaida, in Quindio. We arrived at the park of La Tebaido with a thousand pesos in our pocket and tree or four change of clothes. We were cold, we were hungry, in other words, it was misery. I told my son to go get himself a coffee and a small bread roll because we could not afford anything else and that I would get a coffee. He told me: “What about your cigarette? Because you can’t go without your cigarette”. I told him: “Yes, sweetie, I smoke a cigarette and I take a coffee. And you take your coffee and your small bread roll”.
DIANA, 50 years old, Columbian. In 52 years, the armed conflict in Colombia killed 220,000 people, 40,000 disappeared and 6 million got internally displaced.
I was at home. It was market day. I told my husband I was going to get some detergent. He told me to be quick. I stopped by my mom who sells vegetables at the bazaar and I helped her for a bit. A disabled person showed up, so I helped her too, before going to get a snack with my little sister. Then, we headed home. On the road, someone attacked me from behind and threw acid on my head. My little sister got some on her cheeks too. I got stabbed, got kicked in the head and elsewhere. I collapsed and lost consciousness.
Since then, fear never leaves me, only dreams allow me to escape. I am always scared. What haunts me is that my kids’ future is ruined. Before, I was not afraid of anything, I was coming and going, I was talking easily to everyone. If I had been more educated, maybe I would have understood, and it would not have happened.
It is necessary to inform young girls. They must be frightened; they need to be wary of boys. Married women too. We think that once married, everything will be fine, that we will be respected, but we are never safe.
But it is complicated, women at the village don’t understand much. We would need a place in the village where we could explain all that. We would also need a home where we would take care of the women who have been harmed forever and explain to people that physical beauty is not everything, that inner beauty is equally important.
BASANTI, 29 years old, Nepalese. Basanti has been acid burnt by her husband’s friend who harassed her and whom she kept refusing the advances.
Someone came to me to tell me that my son Ahmad had been injured. I thought it was nothing serious, because Ahmad had quite often been injured in the past. Once he had a serious injury on the knee, another time, on the head, once he got a rubber bullet in the leg… So, this time, I did not believe it was serious.
There was a wedding at the village on that day. Ahmad was going, he had washed up and got dressed up. The party was starting at 10:00 AM. But people told me that he only got to the checkpoint and that’s where he was injured.
We all decided to go see the checkpoint. We waited for up to three hours for the Israelis to come, open the checkpoint and let us pass. Then, we went to the hospital, and we saw him coming out of the operating room. He was there for one week afterwards. He was unrecognizable because of the swelling in his face. He was exhausted.
Unrecognizable. I knew he would not make it. After one week, on Thursday, I was worried, so I went to the hospital. Doctors told me I could not go in. I told them: “No! I want to see him!”. They responded: “If you go and see him, promise you’ll leave afterwards?”
I promised. I got into the room. I saw that they had unplugged the machines. They had closed his eyes with adhesive tape. Because of the light? They told me yes, it was so. They did not tell me he was dead. I got out and sat on top of the stairs, without feeling anything unusual. A few seconds later, my nephew, who works as a nurse in this hospital came to see me. He was crying. He told me: “Oh my auntie, God gives life and takes it back. Ahmad left us”. Then, I collapsed. I cried and screamed so much that the hospital shook.
It has been three years since I set foot in a party, even for the weddings of my loved ones. My niece got married, and even then, I did not have the heart to go there. I cannot see newlyweds anymore; I just can’t do it. It is too much of a loss. Losing your mother, your father or brother, it’s all right, but your son…
AFIFA, Palestinian. Attacks by settlers and the Israeli army, seizure of property, destruction of cultures, and forced displacements have disastrous consequences on life and health of the Palestinian people.
Our debts needed to be paid, we did not have enough money to game ends meet, we had a little plot of land as our only resource. I gave birth to six children, five survived. I have four daughters and one boy. My oldest daughter is 31 years old, the second one is 24, the next one 22, the youngest 13 years old and my son is 21 years old. It was necessary to feed and dress my kids. We could not make it, so we went to look for a job. I had a friend who worked on this waste sorting site.
It is not easy to work under these conditions, it is always very, very important to protect yourself. You never know what might happen, there is glass, debris, you find needles too. The bulldozers and the nonstop noise of machines scare me, but we make enough to survive.
My kids are grown up now. We all live here in the same house. Houses are made of metal sheets. We have to go get water. Life is hard here and sometimes men go up there for drinks and when they come back, they are violent. We all have our problems, we struggle, we work and we make it work. That’s how our life flows.
SANU NANI, Nepalese. Sanu Nani is a member of the community of trash recyclers who work informally in Katmandu Valley.