BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo (WOMENSENEWS)--Billboards on the dirt roads here in the capital of South Kivu are trying to change the attitude.
"Life is sacred. Rape is a crime," the signs trumpet.
The shooting war officially ended in 2006 but rape remains widespread in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, especially outside the cities, where armed combatants of Rwanda's genocidal war and Congo's conflict continue to operate, said Dr. Aziza Aziz Suleyman, a sexual violence social worker.
This is the same area where in late August dissident Gen. Laurent Nkunda launched an attack on the government from Goma, the capital of North Kivu, displacing about 250,000 people in the country's eastern provinces that border Rwanda.
"Rural villages are held hostage by armed bandits but it is the women who pay the price," said Suleyman, who works in the area with Malteser International, a relief agency based in Cologne, Germany.
She spoke with Women's eNews in August, a few weeks before Nkunda launched his rebellion. "When the husband rejects the wife, when families reject the babies and communities assume the rape victim has HIV-AIDS, culture becomes an added burden."
But Suleyman is not resigned. "Little by little," she says, communities are overcoming a cultural tolerance of rape and tendency to treat rape victims as adulteresses.
A force behind that change is South Kivu Women's Media Association, which is known as AFEM for its French acronym. The Bukavu-based association of 40 female media professionals creates programming focused on women--especially those in rural areas--for South Kivu's six radio stations. The group has had enormous success in its outreach efforts and is now facing an enormous setback after its headquarters were robbed.
Raped Women Speak Up
"We try to get raped women to speak up and put them on the airwaves so that the entire community understands that rape is a crime," says Julienne Baseke, a 29-year-old sociology graduate of Bukavu University who leads the group's monthly reporting efforts. "We educate. If a woman knows her rights then the situation can change. If she doesn't, women's rights are at men's mercy."
In the past two years the South Kivu Women's Media Association has created focal points in South Kivu to identify sexual violence survivors and collect their testimony. This year, they produced tape cassettes and CDs telling the stories of about 100 women. This harrowing audio compendium on sexual violence reaches rural women through local radio listening clubs.
The group also produces educational features for rural communities to help destigmatize sexual violence survivors. It publicizes health resources and information about women's legal rights under a penal code that imposes prison sentences of between six months and 20 years for indecent assaults and rape.
In red zones--such as Kanyola and Ninja, in Walungu territory--armed bandits are so out of control that the media association stays out. Entering this region could mean "leaving one's skin behind," Baseke explained.
As a basic precaution Baseke informs the Mwami, or village chief, about her reporting efforts in danger zones.
Fixer Charles Nitricya, who also produces radio programs focusing on women and gender issues in eastern Congo for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, was kidnapped and later released by Mai Mai militia men this month, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reported Nov. 7.
So far the South Kivu Women's Media Association has been spared similar attacks, but Baseke knows their work puts a lot on the line. "There are no real safety guards," she said. "Rape is a risk. Death is a risk. Our hope is that if we go there and report the facts, then maybe justice will be delivered. Access is never the problem. It is the threats and retractions that come afterwards."
The media association formed in August 2003, shortly after President Laurent Kabila was signed in as president and an interim parliament inaugurated. In its first year of operations, it reached 10,000 rural women by partnering with over 50 radio clubs across the seven territories of South Kivu.
"The linchpin of our campaign is rural women," said Franchou Namegabe, 30, a founding member and current president.
In 2007 the media association and local partners lobbied the International Criminal Court and campaigned against sexual violence with 16 days of specialized radio programming. From May to October 2008 it reported on gender, good governance and sexual violence in the rural territories of Kalehe, Uvira and Walungu.
In addition to its field work, the media association organizes a professional support group for its network of 40 female media professionals--some of whom assist its reporting projects--working in South Kivu.
Training Called a Pipe Dream
Attaining specialized skills, such as TV reporting, is almost a pipe dream for women here, said Cynthia Kanyere, 30, who oversees production and sound editing in the small back room of the local post office that serves as the media association's headquarters.
Both she and Baseke learned about reporting by volunteering at Radio Mandeleo and Radio Maria, two Bukavu stations.
Baseke and Kanyere criticize an atmosphere of "sexual clientism" in their industry, where women's advancement--in the absence of anything but on-the-job training--often depends on how well they receive their bosses' sexual advances.
"If she knew her job she would be able to reject these advances," said Kanyere.
Only one radio station in South Kivu--Radio Mandeleo--provides contracts and salaries for its reporters. None of the stations is run by a woman. Among newspapers, only one woman, Solange Lusiku, has risen in the male-dominated media ranks to become the editor of bimonthly newspaper the Sovereign.
In the South Kivu Women's Media Association's network of female journalists, only one, Clementine Kisinya, who worked for RTNC, Congo's National Radio and Television, until her death in 2007, was proficient at operating a TV camera. Today, the group owns one video camera, which members share and train each other on.
The media association has one copy of an outdated audio editing program, which Kanyere says they have barely mastered. The group's recorders are old and beaten up. Batteries run out fast and the tape catches constantly.
Thieves broke into its headquarters at the end of August, taking a computer, a printer, three Sony cassette recorders, batteries and most of their archives. The only things left were a flashlight, two minidisks and a screwdriver.
"This really hurts us," said Mwayume. "If we could only get all our sound and testimonies back."
Dominique Soguel is Women's eNews Arabic editor.