By Rebecca Harshbarger
Sunday, August 23, 2009
In the aftermath of Hillary Clinton's recent trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, women's rights and safety activists in Congo and Uganda reflect on the hope she leaves behind in one of the world's worst rape zones.
KAMPALA, Uganda (WOMENSENEWS)--Sarah Assimwe, 13, is far from her family's former home in Bunia, a city in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Now she lives here in Kampala with her mother, as members of the city's urban refugee population.
Assimwe is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. It's been seven years since she crossed the Congolese border, but memories of her father's death often cross her mind in painful flashbacks.
"The memories come three times a day," she said, at Butabika Hospital, a mental-health facility here supported by the World Bank and the Ugandan Ministry of Health. "They frighten me very much."
When Assimwe was 6, Congolese rebels attacked her family's neighborhood in Bunia and burned houses there to the ground. When rebels entered her own home, Assimwe watched them kill her father and brother with machetes and rape her mother before going on to slaughter her neighbors.
Assimwe's mother, Jacqueline Kabonesa, carried her daughter on her back as they fled to Uganda, which borders eastern Congo.
Assimwe may not have known about U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent trip to her native country.
But the kinds of suffering she has endured have a lot to do with Clinton's August 11 mission to Goma, a city in the eastern Congo at the epicenter of a massive epidemic of rape. The sexual violence that Assimwe's mother once endured there is suffered by hundreds of women and men on a daily basis.
More than 4,000 rapes have been reported in the eastern Congo this year; few assailants, usually soldiers or members of militias, have been convicted.
As widely reported, Clinton on August 10 announced $17 million in new U.S. funding to train doctors; supply rape survivors with mobile phones and cameras to document violence, and train a special female police force to protect women in the eastern Congo.
The United States has a potentially larger role to play in the Congo's peace and reconciliation process by providing foreign aid and regulating U.S. mining companies accused of working with rebel groups. It also can continue to finance Uganda's military operations against the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel army now based in eastern Congo.
"I feel that Hillary's trip to the Congo was a turning point," Eve Ensler, the playwright and political organizer, said in a phone interview with Women's eNews. "I think it's fantastic that a Secretary of State said that rape as a strategy, as a weapon of war, is a central issue. I think that's historical."
In Goma, part of an 11-day tour of seven African countries, Clinton visited a hospital and had a private meeting with two rape victims.
One woman told Clinton about being raped when she was eight-months pregnant, the Washington Post reported. Then she miscarried. There was no hospital nearby, she said, so people in her village cut out the fetus with a razor blade.
"The United States condemns these attacks, and all those who commit them and abet them," Clinton said in a roundtable with activists in Goma, according to the Secretary of State's Web site.
A growing movement of U.S. activists, spearheaded by Ensler's anti-violence organization, V-Day, have been working with counterparts in the Congo and in the United States to end the rape and sexual violence that women in eastern Congo endure.
This week, V-Day launched construction in eastern Congo of what Ensler calls the City of Joy. It will be a leadership and development center, as well as a source of refuge for women survivors of rape and torture. The City of Joy will provide the survivors with educational and income-generating opportunities, activism training and leadership skills.
"It will support Congolese women who have suffered atrocities to become the future leaders," Ensler said.
During her visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Clinton had a testy exchange with a male Congolese student at a forum in Kinshasa.
The student's question went through a translator and that has since raised the possibility of misinterpretation. But the student was represented as asking the Secretary of State what "Mr. Clinton" thought about a Chinese trade deal with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?" Clinton said, according to widespread news accounts. "My husband is not Secretary of State, I am. If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channeling my husband."
While the international press focused on Clinton's retort, it was largely ignored in Uganda.
When asked about the incident, May Sengendo, a professor at Kampala-based Makerere University's Women and Gender Studies Department, said Clinton had her sympathy. Sengendo said the student's question reminded her of how the Ugandan first lady, Janet Museveni, has had a hard time moving out of her husband's shadow, despite her own professional accomplishments.
"I think Clinton was very brave and professional to say that's my husband, and to distinguish her role as Secretary of State," said Sengendo. "She has her own identity."
Sengendo was particularly stunned that the student asked the question during a forum that focused on Congolese women. "Congolese culture is very patriarchal; it's the Secretary of State, but to the student, this was still a woman. This represents power relations, not only in Congo, but everywhere."
Uganda's December military operation last year against the Lord's Resistance Army has been criticized for making life in the Congo worse, since it triggered reprisal attacks on citizens, including abductions of children and women as soldiers and sex slaves.
"They always regard girls as sex slaves, tools of war, and fighters," said Felix M. Kulayigye, spokesman for the Ugandan People's Defence Force, in an exclusive interview with Women's eNews, referring to the rebel group.
Since December, Kulayigye has defended the U.S.-funded Ugandan mission to the Congo as a necessary attack on a rebel army that was regrouping and had refused to sign onto the latest round of peace agreements.
"Unfortunately, sexual violence has become a weapon of war and when matters or conflicts go ethnic, sexual violence is used to dehumanize the adversary," he said.
Resolve Uganda, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group points out that while she talked about the sexual assaults by the region's roving groups of armed men, Clinton did not mention the violence that the Lord's Resistance Army has inflicted on eastern Congo in recent months. Resolve Uganda says rebel forces have killed at least 1,200 Congolese civilians since September 2008, abducted over 500 children and displaced 321,000 civilians from their homes.
"We were disappointed that Secretary Clinton failed to mention LRA violence in northeastern Congo during her recent trip to the region," said Paul Ronan, senior policy analyst and co-founder of Resolve Uganda, "especially given that she emphasized the need to address sexual violence."
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Rebecca Harshbarger is a journalist based in Kampala, Uganda.