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'Stop raping our greatest resource' - In the Congo, in Antigua

Originally published in:
Antigua Sun

by ZIA

With the first lens, in the myopic sense, the opinions will immediately be given that there is no comparison. Geography alone separates us. Their political system is nothing like ours. “Those” people are nothing like us. Some will even go so far as to comment that we in the diaspora are more “civilised”, that they in the Congo are far behind in all integral parts of human and economic development. Never mind that the wars are being waged over the diamonds, gold and colton (a mineral used in cell phones and laptops) and other natural resources in the Congo, while in Antigua our natural resources are ... are ... (to be continued).

So is there some connection? Besides the fact that we’re all a part of the diaspora, there is the fact that we continue to ignore the environment despite efforts from local concerned bodies to remind us that we are not immune from the global environmental crisis. But there’s also the nature of the crimes committed. While the actual numbers differ tremendously for now, the sexual crimes against women and children continue to be the same. If nothing else, Antigua and Barbuda is connected to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the nature of the crimes committed against the world’s greatest resource – our women.

While some of the crimes in the DRC are unspeakable, while fear continues to plague the majority of women preventing them from sharing their stories and coming forward, so too does fear cripple many women and children in Antigua and Barbuda. Fear and the negative stigma we continue to place on the victim more than the perpetrator continues to make the number of reported rapes, incest and sexual abuse cases inaccurate.

In the DRC, many women are faced with the fact that if they speak out against what happens to them either they or their families will be killed. How many women are given the same threat by their assailant husbands, boyfriends, attackers? How many more children are threatened with similar threats by their un-convicted fathers, step-fathers, uncles, cousins, siblings, and family friends?

The fact remains that we have much in common with the Congo, namely the attitudes toward sexual crimes.

Over there in the Congo

Google the DRC and you may just find that it has the second largest rainforest in the world. This small fact is buried in the description of their treatment of the rainforest “over there”, where the harsh word “carving” is used to describe its disregard for this natural resource.

But what of the other greater resource of the women? The headlines are flooded with the inhumane treatment of the women there. “Sexual violence in the DRC”; “Congo women need your help”; “War against women”; “Not women anymore – Survivors share their stories” and the list continues. The gruelling tales of women and young girls, as young as two years old, as old as in their 80s continue to trickle into the global headlines. They fight to have their stories told in hopes that someone, somewhere can stop this side-effect of a war that is doing more harm to them than to any other party in the DRC.

In a New York Times article by Bob Herbert, The Invisible War, he wrote, “For years now, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, marauding bands of soldiers and militia have been waging a war of rape and destruction against women. The sustained campaign of mind-bending atrocities ... has been one of the strategic tools in a wider war that has continued, with varying degrees of intensity, since the 1990s.”

He continues, “Women and girls of all ages, from old women to very young children, have been gang-raped, and in many cases their sexual organs have been mutilated. The victims number the hundreds of thousands. But the world for the most part, has remained indifferent to their suffering.”

I remember Lebrechtta Nana Oye Hesse from Gender Affairs calling me one night last year to remind me of a documentary that was about to start on HBO. Involved with the 2008 Vagina Monologues, I was interested in watching this, having known since last year that the 2009 Spotlight piece was going to be on the Congo.

Titled The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, this documentary which was shot in the war zones of the Congo gives a small visual of the traumatic and horrifying lives of the tens of thousands of women who for over a decade have been kidnapped, raped, abused and mutilated by Congolese militia, and in some instances foreign militia, who are supposed to protect them.

It documents some of the women and their tragic experiences.

One woman in the documentary, her eyes showing no visible signs of emotion, repeats her story as if on cue. She admits at the end that she feels absolutely nothing. Emotions for her have become mechanical. This woman recalls Congolese militia breaking into her home and beating up her husband. She remembers him begging them to take the only money he had – US$20. She recalls them gang raping her in front of him, while they beat him up and force him to watch. She remembers the horror of them forcing her to watch as they then chop him to pieces.

She’s since been remarried, and although her second husband is a good man, she still feels nothing. Her experience has left her void of all emotion.

There is a four-year-old shown in the film. Her mother lifts her arms as she tells Emmy award winning film-maker Lisa Jackson (who is, herself, a survivor of gang rape), that she knows who raped her little girl. And even though this woman is brave enough to go to the police, they do nothing about it.

One woman comments that one of the main problems, besides the threats against speaking out, is the fact that many of those who are policymakers and in power were/are criminals themselves, so there will never be justice for them as women until that fact changes.

In an interview with a captain from one of the foreign militia, he recounts his experience to Jackson. Walking through the rainforest to deliver relief to villages, they happen to come across an unchartered village of women. There’s almost 100 women in the village from as young as eight years old to as old as 80. The captain and his troop are shocked to discover that this “village” is comprised of women who were lucky enough to escape sex camps and sex enslavement. The women tell Jackson that what has been experienced by one has been experienced by all, irrespective of age. They have all shared the experience of being gang raped by at least 20 soldiers a day for two weeks straight. At this point, while the voice over is heard, the camera frames an eight year old girl, whose eyes are down cast, they then show an elderly woman, wrinkled and needing the support of a stick to walk.

His voice thick with the emotional burden of the experience, the captain tells Jackson that in all his years of being in the army he’s never come across such a travesty as what he’s witnessed in the Congo by these women.

Questioning why this decade-old atrocity has continued to devastate these women without much external intervention, Jackson, in an interview asked the question: “Is there something about sexual violence that makes us all turn away? In what human context does it become intentional, programmatic, a weapon of choice? Where are the voices of women themselves? If they tell their stories, will others listen?”

Here in Antigua

Sounds familiar? Can we, here in Antigua and Barbuda, provide answers? Can we say that we’ll listen to the stories of rape victims without lavishing on the sordid details? Can we say that we’re genuinely interested in seeing sexual violence come to an end, when we continue to ignore the cries from neighbours who are being abused by their male counterparts? When our children come to us with tales of being molested, can we honestly say that we listen and not turn them away, call them rude and tell them they’re just making it up to cause trouble?

We read about a step-father who chose to “punish” his step-daughters by raping them – we say, “coo yah... he nuh easy!” and pretty much leave it there.

We read that a man abused his wife, attempted to murder her, succeeded in permanently scarring her body and chopping off her thumb, yet he remained out of jail for an entire year before his care was tried. Our response? Obviously indifference, as he was not in police custody.

We remember the Toussaint case, where this woman followed all protocol, but the day after her horrific murder, the blood trails to neighbours’ doors speaks volumes of our indifference to help, her murder shouts of the inadequacy, or is it just the fact that despite bodies erected to “help” with these things, the saying, “we don’t get involved in domestic affairs” continues to fly.

We hear of a serial rapist who victimised so many women, and the police refused to disclose identity, or valuable information, such as the man’s evidence of military background, and his ability to pick locks, including deadbolts. We accept the stories printed in the newspapers and the police reports which always blame the women for not “securing” their homes accurately.

We continue to point a finger at a popular “character” here in Antigua who is openly trans-gendered, but we forget that as a child he was “allegedly” gang-raped by prominent members of society – an incident orchestrated by one of his own family members. Speaking with his then welfare officer, she grows angry as she recounts the events and how hard she worked on the case. But a simple “pay off” was enough to throw the case out. We continue to mock, laugh and some continue to openly abuse this young man who is just another victim of sexual violence. We forget that his misfit demeanour is a result of our neglect as a society, or deliberate lack of reinforcement of the law to protect him.

Here in little Antigua and Barbuda, while our numbers are nowhere near as high as those in the Congo, attitudes remain similar. More urgency is given to a drug bust than a domestic disturbance. There is more care given to a narcotic investigation, than an investigation of a sexual crime.

As a society, we continue to point at the victims and survivors, making them feel that in some way they induced their traumas. We continue to be more interested in the sordid details than the welfare of the woman to regain her confidence and personal security.

The result? The culture of silence continues in Antigua and Barbuda. It’s not just the Congo, but right here in little Wadadli, the statistics continue to only cover a small portion of women who come forward. But it only scratched the surface. In many cases, the number of Hispanic women and women of other nationalities who are victims of sexual abuse continue to go unreported.

When Vaginas speak

Last year, Women Of Antigua, a young group of women staged Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues for the first time in Antigua. These monologues became a global movement to end violence against women around the world. These monologues are designed to eradicate negative stereotypes about women; to let survivors and victims of sexual crimes know that they are not alone; and most importantly, to celebrate women.

This year, Eve Ensler and her V-Day team certainly added more light to the devastating experiences in the Congo by making the DRC the spotlight of the 2009 season. In one of her pieces, she talks of meeting an eight-year-old at the Panzi Hospital who had had most of her internal reproductive organs damaged and removed. Having been abducted, after seeing her father murdered and her mother raped, this child had been gang raped by soldiers for two weeks consecutively. She’d also had the muscle that controls her bladder destroyed, so this child, at age nine, can no longer control her bladder.

This is just one of thousands of experiences by young girls in the Congo.

While some believe that V-Day and The Vagina Monologues takes the intimacy and reverence out of the “vagina” or the woman, others see it differently. For one, since its inception 11 years ago, the V-Day campaign has shed more global light on countries where women have gone unnoticed for decades as victims of sex crimes. It raises awareness, and sends a strong message of comfort to many of these women.

By sharing with the rest of the world the production of The Vagina Monologues with its spotlights serves to remind countries of their own status with sex crimes and violence against women, and cautions that if attitudes and laws don’t change, many countries, like Antigua and Barbuda could very well become like these other places, such as the Congo.

During this V-Day season, Eve Ensler toured with Dr. Denis Mukwege embarked on a five-city tour last month to make people more aware of what has been happening to women in the Congo. Dr. Mukwege stated in an interview with the New York Times, “Once they [the militia] have raped these women in such a public way ... sometimes maiming them, destroying their sexual organs – and with everybody watching – the women themselves are destroyed, or virtually destroyed. They are traumatised and humiliated on every level, physical and psychological. That’s the first consequence.”

Winner of the 2008 UN Human Rights Prize and founder of the Panzi Hospital in the Congo, Dr. Mukwege continued to explain in the interview that “the second consequence is that the whole family and the entire neighbourhood is traumatised by what they have seen. The ordinary sense of family and community is lost after a man has been forced to watch his wife being raped, or parents are forced to watch the rape of their daughters, or children see their mothers being raped.”

Sounds familiar? Just last year we’d read of the serial rapist raping a woman in front of her young children.

We continue to think that these tales of sexual violence are so foreign to our shores. In essence, it is the numbers that may be foreign, for the moment. But should attitudes toward women and children and sexual crimes continue, it won’t be long before the Congo’s reality becomes Wadadli’s reality.