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Marie Claire Faray-kele argues that even though the bodies of Congolese women were used as battlefields in the DRC war, they are now being excluded from peace process.

As women from around the world join in solidarity this International Women’s Day, we are reminded that gender-based violence is one of the greatest threats to women’s advancement, empowerment and security. Sadly, for many of my sisters in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), sexual violence of the worst kind is a daily reality. Some of them have suffered such grievous sexual abuse; that they would struggle to walk to water well, let alone join a demonstration for female emancipation.

There is no denying that the human cost of the conflict and instability in the DRC has been cataclysmic. Since 1997, more than 4 million people are estimated to have died as a result of the war. But so far there is no figure for the number of Congolese women who have suffered the petrifying and dehumanising ordeal of systematic rape. While rape and sexual violence have been a product of many conflicts, the scale and systematic nature of the rapes in eastern Congo renders it a weapon of war. Sexual violence has been used to punish entire communities for their political loyalties, to displace populations from their lands or as a form of tribal cleansing.

As part of the UK disapora of Congolese women, I am in regular contact with members of women’s organisation in the DRC, such as the Solidarity of the Women of Burhalé (SOFEBU), based in the east of the country. The group was founded in the 80s, in recognition that women can only become politically emancipated once they have gained economic empowerment. So SOFEBU women set up collective crèches, manage livestock and agricultural projects and form cooperatives in jam-making or clothes dye production. All these projects are managed and implemented by women. But since 1997, many of my fellow Congolese women have lost everything after being subjected to rape and other gender-based violence. Some of these women and girls have been held in sexual slavery. Kidnapped at gunpoint, they were raped by gangs of armed men; who sometimes then mutilated their genitals. Many women are so badly that they have been left with “obstetric fistula”, a condition that leaves them incontinent and unlikely to survive a full-term pregnancy. There are no exemptions from the rapists’ barbarity: victims are as young as three and as old as 75.

Even if these terrible physical injuries do heal – which is unlikely given the scarcity of medical provision in the region – the victims then face the appalling humiliation of being rejected from their husbands, due to the stigma of rape.

These women become silent, invisible. They have no possibility of a social life. Their levels of poverty increase sharply. They cannot seek any justice, even if they know the rapist’s identity. The conflict in the DRC is often referred to as the forgotten war in the international media. But the international community also overlooks the fact that the rapes and the killings have been fuelled by the flood of AK-47 rifles, revolvers and pistols into the African Great Lakes region. These weapons are the rapist’s and killer’s tools of choice and have continued to facilitate the brutality, despite a UN arms embargo.

They are smuggled across the borders from neighbouring countries such as Angola, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and South Africa, but of course they originated in the United States, Europe and the former Soviet Union. A further source of weaponry is provided by multinational companies who flock to eastern DRC to extract coltan, which is used in the manufacture of laptops and mobile phones. Showing an astonishing lack of responsibilty and disregard for human rights, these companies employ local men whom they then arm with guns for "security purposes."

Even UN peacekeepers, the very people who should be protecting the population, have been accused of trafficking gold and weapons. A recent investigation conducted by the Chief of U.N. Peacekeeping was criticised for its lack of transparency, slow progress and narrowness of scope. No system has been set up to observe and control the traffic of guns and no arms brokers or traffickers have been punished and brought to justice.

There is a crucial stumbling block in the DRC disarmament process because women were not and are still not adequately involved or informed. In fact, women are practically excluded from the peace building processes all together. The latest peace agreement was signed in late January 2008, at a conference in Goma, eastern Congo. Out of 600 delegates, there were only 33 women in attendance. Out of a six page document, the only referral to rape and sexual violence was in a singular paragraph that read: “[all parties hereby agree to] the cessation of all acts of violence in all forms towards the civilian population, particularly women and children, the elderly and handicapped.”

Unlike acts of mass killings, which are referred to as massacres, there is no noun for the act of deliberate, systematic rape. Congolese women want to know why not. They want a strengthened, independent and effective justice system in the DRC; and they want to see this disgusting crime investigated at the highest levels of the International Criminal Court. Crucially, they also want to be active in pursuing this justice. It is in the interest of women worldwide that violence against our gender at all levels is recognised and punished - and not witnessed on this scale ever again.

*Marie Claire Faray-kele is a Research Scientist in Infectious Diseases Centre, Institute of Cell and Molecular Science (ICMS), Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry in London.

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