Doctor tells of fight to stop rape being used as a weapon

The head of a Congo hospital offering surgery to survivors of sexual assault has come to London

Her name was Sakina. She was 28-years-old when her husband was murdered in the violence that engulfed the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002.

Fearing for her life – and those of her three children – she fled to a neighbouring village where she was gang-raped by five men because she came from another tribe. The men also inserted the barrel of a gun into her, tearing her internal organs.

Sakina became the first patient of Dr Jo Lusi, then the only doctor in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to offer corrective surgery to women, men and children who had been raped.

Dr Lusi now runs one of only three hospitals in DRC (which is four times the size of France) to carry out surgery on victims of rape. His hospital in Goma is supported by Heal Africa and funded by the British development agency Tearfund. So far this year, he and his team have treated 8,000 women. The youngest was just nine-years-old. The oldest was 70.

“Rape is endemic in Congo,” says Dr Lusi. “Tribes use rape to show that they are stronger than each other, to humiliate each other. When a village is invaded, all the women will be raped.”

Dr Lusi says his work as an orthopaedic surgeon changed direction overnight when Sakina was admitted 11 years ago. “My wife cried all day,” he says. “She pushed me to do something. I feel really, really angry about these rapes. But I have to live positively. I have to fight. You have to focus on what you can change.” 

He was in London this week to address a meeting of delegates from UN, the Department for International Development (DfID) and NGOs, which are seeking further international action to protect women and girls from violence and sexual exploitation after natural disasters, and in conflict zones such as DRC. The UK pledged £21m towards the cause.

There are no reliable statistics for the number of women and girls – who make up the majority of victims – raped every year in the world’s trouble spots. Rape is commonly used as a weapon of war, often as a means of ethnic cleansing, and the number of rapes perpetrated increases at times of political instability or after a natural disaster, when law enforcement is weak. 

According to DfID, in Haiti 18 months after the earthquake sexual abuse was widespread. In Kenya after the droughts of August 2011, reports of violent attacks on girls and women in the Dadaab camps nearly doubled. In Syria, as the civil war continues, the number of rapes is believed to be rising.

Dr Lusi says admissions to his hospitals doubled in the past three months, as the M23 rebel movement desperately attempted to cling to their strongholds in the east of the country against the Congolese army and UN forces. Following fierce fighting, the M23 rebels surrendered, and a tentative peace deal is in the works.

Dr Lusi says there are queues of women who have been raped waiting for beds in his hospital in Goma.

“When all 12 beds are full and there are 30 more women waiting to be treated, then I can’t sleep. It is chaos, darkness.”

The Congolese army and militias have been accused of using sexual violence against women in conflict, and DRC remains one of the world’s most dangerous places in the world for women and girls to live.

A study carried out by researchers by the World Bank and International Food Policy Research Institute at Stony Brook University in New York, published in 2011, estimated that 1,152 women are raped in DRC every day.

Violence is also used in the home. Based on figures from a nationwide household survey of 3,436 Congolese women aged 15 to 49 in 2007, the study also said around 22 per cent of women said they had been raped or forced to perform sexual acts by their partners. 

Generations have grown up thinking sexual violence against women is part of life, Dr Lusi says. Soon after treating Sakina, he was elected to parliament as a senator. A year later, in 2003, the government passed a law he proposed, giving a mandatory 25-year prison term for convicted rapists.

“Before that if you raped a lady, you had to pay two chickens as a fine,” he says. “So rape was an easy crime. Now you go to prison. No one shuts up about rape any more.”

There is plenty more to be done in DRC to protect and enlarge the rights of women. The 69-year-old told international leaders at the meeting that all development schemes must begin with empowering and educating women. “Women must be the mother of all priorities in development,” he said.

After her surgery, Sakina was helped to find work, and has married again.

“[Physically] Sakina was healed completely... Things like that make me feel very glad. It’s the most joyful thing.”