Women who survived war where rape was used as weapon tell of its horrors and their struggle since

'He took me by force. I did not know he was HIV positive. They did not tell me anything'

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Sunday 25 November 2018 13:12 GMT
Congolese state soldiers prepare a rocket launcher in 2007 near Goma
Congolese state soldiers prepare a rocket launcher in 2007 near Goma

The Second Congo War involved nine countries fighting each other on Congolese soil and is the deadliest conflict since the Second World War.

The conflict had claimed 5.4 million lives by 2008 – the same year the United Nations officially declared rape a weapon of war due to the scale of violence suffered by women during this period.

Two decades on from the conflict – commonly referred to as the Great African War – sexual violence remains prevalent in the country. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, particularly the eastern region of the country, has been branded the rape capital of the world.

The UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which falls on 25 November every year, aims to raise awareness of the “global pandemic” of violence against women and girls, from domestic violence to rape, slavery, female genital mutilation and forced marriage.

Women who lived through the Second Congo War struggle to stop its brutality and violence overshadowing their lives.

The conflict’s consequences spilt far beyond the borders of the vast country, which is two-thirds the size of Western Europe – with men returning from the war becoming far more violent in their home lives. The war also often set women even further back in terms of their living conditions.

Women who survived the war, which ended in 2003, and have endured dire poverty ever since, have now spoken to The Independent about the impact it had on their own lives on the 20th anniversary of its outbreak.

Claudine, from Rwanda, which borders the Congo, was just 13 years old during her country’s 1994 genocide, in which her father was murdered.

After the genocide, her sister died after getting sick and she was forced to marry her dead sister’s husband at the age of just 16. He was in his 60s, and went on to rape her.

“My father was killed during the genocide,” the 38-year-old said. “The Interahamwe murdered him when they discovered we had been hiding Tutsis. They wanted to kill my mother and me too, but we survived by hiding in our garden.

“I was married at the age of 16, he [my husband] took me by force,” she said. “My parents forced me to live with the husband and I did not know he was HIV positive. They did not tell me anything.

Claudine (Pooja Kishnani/ActionAid)

“It was tough for me. I ran away to my aunt’s and my family had to drag me away from her house. I had no choice. Everyone was forcing me into that marriage … I never wanted to live with that husband, I never wanted to marry him.”

In 1998, after the Second Congo War had started, her adopted son, who was her nephew from her dead sister, was killed by militia fighters returning from the war and she herself was kidnapped.

“They caught me and they wanted to kill me. So my husband had to pay the penalty to release me because they had taken me somewhere in the forest,” she said.

“The day my adopted son was murdered he was at his happiest. He had done so well at school and was skipping home with his report card,” she recalled. “Erik was taken and crucified on a cross somewhere in the bush. He was just a boy, doing well at school, but they killed him anyway, just for being happy in the street.”

She said she had no idea where the body had been left and they were not able to get any information about his death.

She was left traumatised and unable to talk upon learning she was HIV positive. She had gone to get herself tested after hearing rumours her husband – who went on to die of an AIDS-related injury – was HIV positive.

“I went back home and asked my husband why he hid from me that he was HIV positive. ‘Why did you do it?’ I asked.

“After knowing I was HIV positive I was very traumatised. I couldn’t talk, I went to hide somewhere, I never wanted to talk to anybody again.”

She is now an activist in the community, encouraging people to get tested and doing outreach to schools to prevent and stop abuse and bullying of children who have HIV.

“Before, our children were mistreated at school. Other students would mock them, saying your parents are HIV positive. Other children never sat with them. They could refuse to sit with infected children. The children came back home crying.”

Lucie, who also lived through the war, divorced her husband who would beat her and cheat on her and eventually left her for another woman.

The couple shared a small boutique shop, but after they got divorced, her husband said she no longer had the rights to it so she had nothing to live on. “My husband left me. He went on to marry another woman,” she said.

The 39-year-old said it was difficult to get authorities in the country to believe domestic violence – citing a relative’s experience as an example.

“She was beaten by her husband, but when she went to the police, they sent her to the one-stop centre (centres where women who have experienced violence, including sexual violence, can access support services),” she recalled. “When she reached the one-stop centre they asked for proof. Because she had no proof – she did not have a phone to record it – they ignored her.”

Lucie (Pooja Kishnani/ActionAid)

Ancille, 47, lost her husband during the Second Congo War in 1998 and became the sole breadwinner for her family – including a very sick young child with an illness nobody could diagnose.

She found herself being pushed out of her home and off her land by her late husband’s family due to not knowing her rights.

“During the war, my husband disappeared, we do not know about his whereabouts. We do not know if he died or if he is still alive somewhere. We have not heard from him since the war so we assume he passed away,” she said.

“I had a child who started getting ill, a disease that was unknown to me. He started to become deformed. I took him to several hospitals in the country but he was getting worse and at one point, the doctors cut off his legs and arms. But then he became blind and totally ill and we could not find a cure so I had to take care of him.”

She said her husband’s relatives tried to force her to get married to her brother-in-law and be his second wife, but she managed to get out of it by saying she hoped her husband would return.

“My family relatives took advantage – they sold all my property. If I bought a cow they would sell it off because I did not know my rights.”


Danielle Spencer, technical advisor on violence against women and girls at ActionAid UK, said: “Many of the women and girls in Rwanda who ActionAid works with not only survived the Great War of Africa but also the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The violence they have witnessed has been of a scale that is unimaginable to many of us in this country.

“Violence against women and girls increased before the genocide and consequent wars and the UN Security Council now advocates that increases in violence against women and girls is used as an early warning mechanism of conflict to come.

“We also know that during times of displacement and conflict, women and girls experience multiple forms of violence – perpetrated by men they know, men they are married to, and men in uniform – at increased levels. Before, during and after conflict, women are beaten more, oppressed more and raped more.”

The spokesperson for the charity, who ran a video workshop with women in Rwanda funded by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery over the summer, said the reasons for this increase in violence are diverse and can include increased economic hardship, changes in gender roles and increased stress, distress or trauma resulting from men’s roles during the war.

She added: “However, the root cause of this violence is gender inequality, and the need to remember this is important. Unless we address the root cause of violence against women and girls, widespread sexual violence will continue to take place in times of war, and women will not be safe in their homes during times of peace.”

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