Women bear the brunt of conflict

The Nairobi Women’s Hospital which treats victims of sexual violence.

Appalling. Inhuman. Atrocious. They are some of the words that describe the gruesome acts committed against women in times of war or during the kind of conflict that gripped the country at the beginning of this year, or even as part of age-old cultural practices that continue to persist across Africa, a continent already sagging under the weight of grinding poverty and social ills.

The Nairobi Women’s Hospital which treats victims of sexual violence. Photo/ JOSEPH KANYI

Records at the Nairobi Women’s Hospital, which treats victims of sexual violence, show that the youngest rape victim during the country’s post-election crisis was one month old and the oldest was 98.

“Majority of the women had been gang-raped,” says Urgent Action Fund Africa executive Kaari Murungi whose organisation donated Sh700,000 to the hospital at the height of the crisis in January as part of their mandate to respond rapidly to assist women in conflict situations.

Ms Murungi says that the near anarchy early this year caused an increase in cases of rape, even though some victims did not report the crime for fear of rejection from their families. “Criminals had taken advantage of the protests and became opportunistic because of the breakdown in law and order. Like in every situation of conflict, the incidents increased,” the women’s rights activist, who is also a lawyer, said.

“For some of the women, it was not just rape. It was cruel, especially where the men who raped them used gun butts and other objects. In 80 per cent of the cases, it was gang rape. This was torture.”

And these sexual offences were not only committed during the period of post-election violence but also in some camps for the internally displaced where, according to the Urgent Action Fund, women were forced to have sex in exchange for food.

Worse forms

According to researchers, what happened to women in Kenya has been replicated in several conflict-ridden countries across Africa, sometimes in worse forms. And in most cases, the perpetrators are let off scot-free.

The long-drawn-out conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has been one of the worst for women victims of sexual assault. In a newspaper article published in November last year, the UN’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, Mr John Holmes, wrote a heart-rending account of his interaction with rape victims in eastern DRC.

“From the start, sexual violence has been a particularly awful – and shockingly common – feature of the conflict in Congo. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable in this predatory environment, with rape and other forms of sexual abuse committed by all sides on an astonishing scale.

“Since 2005, more than 32,000 cases of rape and sexual violence have been registered in South Kivu alone,” Mr Holmes wrote.

“But that’s only a fraction of the total; many – perhaps most – attacks go unreported. Victims of rape are held in shame by Congolese society and frequently are ostracised by their families and communities.

The ripple effect of these attacks goes far beyond the individual victim, destroying family and community bonds and leaving children orphaned and/or HIV-positive.”

Raped her in turns

Mr Holmes wrote the article immediately after visiting a 16-year-old girl in a hospital ward in eastern DRC who narrated to him her experience at the hands of fighters known as the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). They had raped her in turns and then shot her.

“This sexual violence is an affront not only to the body but to the soul and dignity of every woman assaulted. It is a stain on everyone with influence or authority in Congolese society. Yet somehow it continues, amid widespread indifference and in a climate of impunity, with no functioning justice system to speak of.

Yet, even though women bear the brunt of conflict, they are often sidelined during the writing of peace accords to resolve these conflicts. But there are women in the midst of the misery who have determined to look for beauty in the ashes by engaging in peace-making activities, convinced that when the conflict is eradicated, the cases of sexual violence will dwindle.

Two women’s rights activists in eastern DRC, Ms Rose Mutombo and Ms Immaculee Birhaheka, are at the forefront in campaigning for a women-specific agenda in conflict resolution efforts that have been going on for over a decade.

“In eastern Congo, the first groups to organise for peace were women, including abandoned wives of soldiers and survivors of atrocities,” Ms Mutombo and Ms Birhaheka wrote in a paper published in the Urgent Action Fund newsletter.

The Urgent Action Fund has also been involved in educating pygmy women in DRC who have become the target of superstitious men who believe eating their victims’ genitals will bring them good luck in war.

“Armed groups in the DRC have been known to eat the genitals of female pygmies before going to war in order to make them superhuman and invincible,” Ms Murungi told the Sunday Nation.

In neighbouring Rwanda, rape was widespread during the 1994 genocide that left about a million people dead in just 100 days of inhumanity. However, Rwanda, according Ms Gloriose Bazigaga who fights for women’s rights, has been reversing the effects of the genocide that the world ignored for too long.

“There’s great political will to incorporate women. The succession law on women is now in place. Women form 30 per cent of decision-making positions; a woman heads the human rights commission,” Ms Bazigaga wrote in an Urgent Action Fund publication.

Gender equality

Rwanda has also had success with the traditional courts known as the Gacaca. “In the Gacaca tribunals, women form 26 per cent of the judges. This is a traditional court, which, originally, did not include women and it is therefore a milestone towards gender equality,” she wrote.

It is not just the abuse visited on women by men that is worrying, but also abuse by women on women as demonstrated by the cases of breast-ironing in Cameroon.

“They flatten the breasts with a huge hot piece of stone and hot towels to make sure that the girls are not attractive to men,” said Kavinya Makau an assistant programme officer at Urgent Action Fund.

Breast-ironing is normally executed by the girl’s female relatives ostensibly to ensure she remains a virgin until she marries. Statistics show that 26 per cent of women in Cameroon have undergone breast-ironing.

However, Urgent Action Fund, an international non-governmental organisation based in Nairobi, has been involved in sponsoring organisations that have exposed such practices and sought to stop them.

The organisation is funded by local and foreign foundations.