Too often the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is reduced to ‘the rape capital of the world,’ a tragic title that has worn out its welcome. We see DRC as the world’s capital of survivors, of courageous women whose bodies – and humanity – have come under attack, but who carry remarkable hope. And their hope deserves not only our attention, but our action.
Recently, we joined Dr. Jill Biden on her visit to Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, in the South Kivu province of eastern DRC. Along with U.S. Ambassador-At-Large for Global Women's Issues, Catherine Russell, we heard inspiring stories of women who have endured and survived horrific circumstances, and some of whom have finally received justice.
Panzi Hospital was founded 15 years ago to help bring life into the world – to provide care and support for pregnant women and new mothers in a country where one in seven children will die before the age of five. It has since become known for the services it provides to tens of thousands of survivors of sexual violence, a product of decades of war and insecurity, particularly in eastern Congo.
While we have seen some progress, Congo’s hospitals remain filled with survivors, but its jails do not house their perpetrators. The Congolese government and the international community have an obligation to stand against the culture of impunity that continues to plague DRC and the mothers and daughters who bear its brunt.
For the last three years, Eastern Congo Initiative and the Panzi Foundation have worked in partnership to provide free legal services to survivors of sexual violence, helping them prosecute their attackers and stand up for their most fundamental human rights.
During Dr. Biden’s visit, we met with Panzi’s team of lawyers, medical staff, and local activists who shared stories of the many obstacles women face in seeking justice. We heard from Therese Kulungu, a tireless advocate and skilled lawyer who stated, “The Second Lady’s visit sends a strong message. When the U.S. Government says ‘no’ to injustice and impunity, it can have real impact here in Congo."
Since Panzi and ECI's partnership began, 118 courageous women have pursued their attackers and seen them sentenced to jail, often amid threats of even more violence. Given the scale of challenges facing the Congolese judicial system, this figure represents a remarkable first step and shows that progress is possible.
An end to sexual violence and conflict can only be achieved through reforming DRC’s security sector. Without a well-resourced, organized and trained police, army and judicial system, Congo will continue to be a safe haven for armed groups that use rape and sexual violence as a physical and psychological weapon of war.
Reversing the cycle of violence in DRC does not simply require financial investment by the U.S. Government or the international community. Active and ongoing diplomatic engagement that demands accountability for reform by the DRC government can do more than any checkbook. President Obama’s recent executive order sends a clear and strong message that the U.S. will continue to go after those who undermine peace and security, target women and recruit child soldiers in DRC. We applaud this action and encourage continued, targeted support from USAID and the State Department.
The U.S., in collaboration with other key international actors, must continue to work with the DRC Government to comply with the U.N.-facilitated Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework. The U.S. should also continue to advocate for the establishment of specialized mixed chambers. This proposed national judicial institution, bolstered with the temporary inclusion of international experts, would hold to account perpetrators of war crimes, including sexual violence in DRC.
The courageous survivors and advocates Dr. Biden met at Panzi Hospital reflect a people who not only carry hope for their own lives, but share an unrelenting desire to give hope to others. They remind us that despite what they have endured – what their country has been through – “we are still here.”
We hope Dr. Biden and Ambassador Russell came away from their trip sharing the hope of women like Therese, and that this visit will continue to bring much needed attention and action for the people of Congo, the world’s capital of survivors.
Dr. Denis Mukwege is the founder and medical director of Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is the recipient of numerous human rights awards including the 2008 UN Human Rights Prize. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize multiple times.
Whitney Williams co-founded Eastern Congo Initiative with Ben Affleck, and serves as Vice Chair of the Board. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.