I have just returned from a trip to the DRC in central Africa and I learnt a thing or two about Weapons of War. Why you might ask and what does this have to do with menstrual and reproductive health?
Dignity Dreams is an NGO based in South Africa that manufactures and distributes washable, multi use sanitary pads to at risk women and girls and if we want International Community support we have to be in other African Countries.
While I was there, we were invited by the World Food Program to visit a couple of their Rape Survivor Facilities. More at risk one cannot get. Whilst the act of sex is required for rape, the violence perpetrated is never about pleasure but always about power. Rape is a weapon of war. It is perpetrated against the weakest and leaves devastation and destruction in its path. The road to recovery for the survivors is a long one.
What I saw in these centres murdered a part of my soul and the terrifying thing is that whilst the DRC is considered a war zone, with rebels and soldiers being responsible for these atrocities, in South Africa we also have a culture of extreme violence and rape. I have to wonder why and then what can we do about it?
Are women so threatening that the act of rape is required for men to exert their power?
The women we saw at these centres (and I hesitate to call them women because the majority were mere girls) were not only raped but physically torn and scarred. I asked the doctor why the girls were so young, because there is surely nothing to be gained by raping a child! His answer was – ‘The younger the better, because you break the father!’
Think about that for just a second. A young girl is raped to break her father!
What happens next blows my mind in ways I cannot to even begin to describe. Because this girl has been raped by an adult rebel or soldier, SHE has shamed the family and is excommunicated. She is thrown out to fend for herself.
Very often she is pregnant from the rape so she will have to fend for herself and a baby. At both the centres we went to every third girl had a baby. I wept.
We were in a restaurant with one of the ‘Generals’ and his wife, where someone went up to him to congratulate him on being found not guilty on the rape charges brought against him. They laughed and from the body language one could see the celebration. I was horrified with all my liberal sensitivities offended. My host asked me – ‘If you have a mandate to murder, what is rape?’
Rape is one of the weapons of war . It is an act of violence and power. It humiliates, degrades and injures. Women are however always resilient and survive and often thrive.
The second facility we visited for the survivors was a training facility. Once their wounds have been healed these women and girls are taught skills so they can go back into communities and are able to support themselves. Every day they are taught something different. On the day we were there they were being taught how to bake, make soap and insect repellent and how to embroider. There were over 300 women participating in this programme. All victims of rape and weapons of war.
So why is the act of violent sex such a weapon? Is it because we value virginity? What about the act breaks the father? The fact that his daughter has been a victim of violence or that she has now lost her virginity?
If the rebel has chopped off her arm instead of penetrating her vagina, would she still be excommunicated?
Bring it closer to home. So many rape victims are so shamed that many if not most never tell anyone. Now if she had her hand chopped off instead would she still feel shamed and responsible? I really don’t think so.
I think our attitudes are because of all the complicated issues we have surrounding menstrual and reproductive health. The value we place on virginity and virtue, the fact that women are supposed to look after their sexuality and are somehow responsible if it is abused by force. What if we could say – ‘How do you think penetrating me will make me less?’
We continue these misconceptions about sexual value at every turn. What if virginity was not valued? What if sex was just sex? What if sex was for pleasure and procreation and not weapons of war?
What if women had so much sexual power that a man would have to think three times before he violated it?
How do we move from this position of shame and humiliation when sexually violated?
I believe we start by talking, shouting even. Naming and shaming. Supporting the survivors and humiliating the perpetrators. Start by knowing that the survivor had nothing to do with the act of violence perpetrated against her and ensuring that she remains a valued part of the community. Stop making her feel guilty and responsible. How many times have you heard or even said – ‘she was looking for it?’
Don’t let rape and violence against women break the fathers or partners. If rape and violence against women is no longer a weapon to destroy a community or a woman, what is left?
I’d love to hear your thoughts – firstname.lastname@example.org
We have another delegation leaving for the DRC In February 2018 and July 2018 – If you would like to help DONATE TODAY.