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Confronting Gender-Based Violence in Central Africa

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CARE - April 16, 2007

By Michael Kleinman, Regional Advocacy Advisor, East and Central Africa

Great Lakes Region of Africa

Occasionally I realize that I've changed. The sights and stories that once would have left me unable to sleep now pass almost without comment - the suffering caused by conflict in Darfur or elsewhere in the region almost never strikes a personal chord any more; it's simply part of the job. It's a sense of detachment that serves a purpose, a way of protecting oneself. 

But sometimes it's impossible to keep that reserve, to maintain that sense of detachment.  Six women gathered in a room in a small village in the Democratic Republic of Congo - all survivors of rape. They described how their lives had changed after being raped, the lack of services and the lack of support. One of the women, in tears, described how her husband forced her from their home after she was raped, separating her from her children. It's a moment I cannot stop thinking about, even a year later - a moment that I can't begin to assimilate or forget.

The stories these women told me are not unique. The overlapping conflicts in Central Africa - in Burundi, the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda - have produced a well-known parade of horrors, including the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. The statistics are jarring. For instance, a 2006 CARE study in Burundi found that 27 percent of the men surveyed admitted to having committed sexual assault. Recent research by CARE in the Congo found that 70 percent of victims of sexual violence know other women who have undergone similar experiences. In one town, a health worker estimated that between 70 and 80 percent of the female population had experienced some form of sexual violence.

The situation is no better in northern Uganda, where sexual abuse by both rebels and government soldiers is all too frequent. A 2007 study by CARE, looking at women's participation in the Ugandan peace process, quoted one woman as saying: "When they [the government] brought us to the camps, they killed many, and raped."

These are the voices that have propelled CARE to expand our response to gender-based violence in Central Africa. Our offices in Burundi, the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda have together formed the Great Lakes Advocacy Group, which helps communities respond to the problem by engaging local leaders to reduce violence against women. We place particular emphasis on empowering women's groups to advocate on their own behalf at local, national and regional levels.

The Great Lakes Advocacy coordinator, Muhamed Bizimana, is working with country offices to develop staff training to help grassroots women's associations articulate the steps they think necessary for addressing gender-based violence on a local level and then support these associations as they engage local officials. A large part of this work involves strategies for engaging men within the communities as potential drivers of change.

We have also started working with U.N. agencies, civil society networks and other international organizations to coordinate advocacy on the national level in these countries around an international protocol on sexual and gender-based violence. All four countries signed the protocol as part of the recently concluded International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. The protocol itself contains draft legislation to help ensure that national laws are responsive to gender-based violence.

At the same time, CARE is advocating for the U.S. Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act, which would help ensure that the United States is doing all it can to address gender-based violence in places like the Congo. Over 7,000 CARE supporters have contacted their members of Congress, urging them to pass this crucial legislation.

There's a long, long way to go. But it's worth all our effort and more if, at some point in the not-too-distant future, a woman in eastern Congo can return home, her head held high.




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