"They are done to destroy women"

How to help victims of sexual violence in Congo

Published November 21, 2007 3:46PM (EST)

Via Boing Boing: Now that Thanksgiving and the war on Christmas are almost upon us, here is one of many, many ways to consider those who much, much less fortunate. As you likely have read, perhaps in Ms. two years ago or more recently in the New York Times, civil conflict in eastern Congo has spawned an epidemic of rape and sexual violence that the U.N. has called "almost unimaginable." As of the Times report, the systematic attacks on women (and girls; don't ask) by militias -- and Congolese government troops themselves -- had, despite the hope that last year's elections might bring an end to widespread anarchy, reached "a scale never before seen." According to the United Nations (which revealed in 2004 that some of its own workers there had taken part in sexual abuse), 27,000 sexual assaults were reported last year in South Kivu province, ground zero for the epidemic. As U.N. under secretary general for humanitarian affairs John Holmes told the Times,"The sexual violence in Congo is the worst in the world." One doctor in South Kivu, who sees 10 new victims every day -- some so "sadistically attacked...that their reproductive and digestive systems are beyond repair" -- said, "We don't know why these rapes are happening, but one thing is clear: They are done to destroy women."

Is there anything we can do to help these women -- who are entering Panzi Hospital in South Kivu. at the rate of 200 a month? Writer Susannah Breslin of the Reverse Cowgirl blog found out. At the suggestion of the Times reporter, she e-mailed Erika Beckman, manager of the hospital's Female Victims of Sexual Violence project. Breslin posted Beckman's response in its entirety; it is harrowing, inspiring, and strongly recommended reading. The upshot is that you can make donations directly to this project, which provides not only provides the best possible gynecological care, but also psychological and legal counseling, transitional housing, literacy classes and training in craft-making with the goal of self-sustenance.

"The best evidence of the importance we have on the raped women that we treat is that many have told me that they would not have survived if they did not come to Panzi," Beckman writes. "Many women are, as you can understand, suicidal after the rape, but here at Panzi, [in addition to] medical treatment, they are also given their value back by our excellent staff and fellow victims who support each other, sing together to relieve the pain, work together on handicrafts and laugh together. They are truly amazing at finding small things to be happy about in life and really encourage each other in this way. There is much joy amidst the disaster."

Unfortunately, there's no simple way (yet!) to donate to the hospital via credit card or Pay Pal. What you can do for now is make a bank transfer according to the instructions provided by Beckham in the fourth paragraph of her email to Breslin. Yes, it's on the up-and-up; that's why I left the whole thing in context; you'll see. That said, I realize that wiring money to Congo may, unfairly or not, at least feel a little bit like providing your bank account number to "assist" the "widow" of Mobutu Sese-Seko. So here are two other options:

Sponsor a woman in Congo through Women for Women International, which is also working to shift the culture in Congo by training men (PDF) to help advocate for women's rights.

Donate to Heal Africa, which helps run a
hospital in the eastern Congo city of Goma that cares for rape victims. $40 will buy a mattress and a blanket for a woman, once recovered, to move into her own home.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

MORE FROM Lynn Harris

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Africa Broadsheet Health Love And Sex United Nations Violence Against Women