It was getting late in a small, remote village in Eastern Congo. Tucked away in the corner of a small wooden house, I climbed into my sleeping bag on top of the cold concrete floor. As I reached for my head lamp, I could vaguely make out the silhouettes of bodies moving swiftly about the room – two Congolese women had walked in to say goodnight. We started chatting. We shared about our respective days, our plans for the morning, and finally I asked them about the current security situation of the village. The following question released a torrent of verbal processing.
“How is the security for women in this village?”
The women gave me a quick history lesson of the conflict in this area: two decades of war; frequent displacement from their homes and village; and seeking refuge in the forest to avoid capture. Some, they told me, even witnessed the ruthless killings or rape of their children and other family members.
“When night falls, you take what you can carry and run to the forest. You do not want to be in your home when the soldiers arrive. They will take everything and spare no one.”
As the women continue to share, I’m amazed at how offhandedly they speak about the struggles of living in a war zone. There are no tears even as they recount their traumas. They speak casually, like it’s a normal thing. At one point, they even laugh when I ask how many women have been raped.
“Everyone is raped here…”
“Most of the women are raped. When women are alone, they are fearful. You go to the field to work and when you walk alone, you could be raped. When you are working, you could be raped. It is not good to go anywhere alone. If you are in a group, only then you might avoid being raped.”
As a Canadian-born woman, I think of how often I take my independence for granted. I’m free to go shopping or pick up groceries by myself, drive myself to work, or do any number of other activities and the thought of being raped rarely, if ever, enters my mind. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it’s a different story.
For years now, Eastern Congo has been known as the rape capital of the world – two in five women are victims of rape and sexual assault. Put another way, there are approximately 1,152 women raped each day. That translates to 48 women per hour. Just imagine if that was the statistical reality in your home town!
In the remote villages of Eastern Congo, the issue is often more pronounced than even the large population centers. In the village we work in, rape is a very real and constant threat.
“Women can’t speak of these things to anyone. If they tell their husbands, their husbands will leave them. If they tell their friends, they will be shamed. In Congo, they say a woman who has been raped is dirty.”
“So how do you know if so many women are really being raped?”
They laughed again.
While listening to these stories, it occurred to me that having these candid conversations of rape told under the cover of darkness provided women with a safe space to freely share about their difficult experiences.
My mind raced as I searched for possible interventions.
What if we could go back in time to prevent these terrible acts of sexual violence from ever happening in the first place? What if we could remove the social stigma of being a rape victim?
We may not be able to change the past, but we can begin to act so that future generations don’t have to experience the same atrocities.
What I’ve learned over time is that education can help change future outcomes. The terrible things that happened in the past don’t have to dictate what happens in the generations to come. Through education, we can teach the next generation, both boys and girls, about human dignity, mutual respect, and healthy conflict resolution. For children who have endured profound trauma, access to schools provides them a safe place to receive much needed psychosocial care to restore healing and wholeness.
When these education-based interventions are in place, it can reduce sexual violence and decrease the number of girls being taken as child brides by up to six times! For young boys, education provides good alternatives to joining extremist causes, giving adolescent boys renewed hope for a future.
Even though my conversation with the two women broke my heart, and though it was painful to imagine what goes on in their war-torn village, amazingly, I was able to walk away from that conversation feeling hopeful. I realized that we don’t have to remain powerless and sit on the sidelines – we can be moved into action.
These incredible women, with their remarkable resilience and strength, are working to see a change in their community. If only by having the courage to speak out, they are fighting to transform their community. I, for one, am emboldened to do the same.
“Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
Cassandra Lee is the co-founder of Justice Rising. She has over 10 years of experience living and working in conflict areas, including the Middle East, Central and East Africa, and North Korea. Currently, Cassandra works primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo building schools in war-affected communities. She recently married, and travels with her husband between the DRC and Los Angeles, CA.