On my very first trip to eastern Congo, I came upon a scene that I have not been able to get out of my head. As I descended from Mwenga, a village high in the rain forest to the beautiful city of Bukuva, lying on the southwestern banks of Lake Kivu, the bodies of five men lay on the side of the road. No one crowded around. Cars drove by. I stopped briefly and seemed to remember saying, “Oh, my goodness.”
I did not cry, I did not become hysterical, I did not take pictures. Someone said, “Let’s get out of here.” That’s what we did. There was no real discussion.
It was then I realized that things were different here. It is through those lens that my Footprints Foundation threads lightly as we work with women and girls who have been raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Our goal is to reduce maternal and infant mortality in a country often described as the worst place on earth to be a woman and to empower women so they can speak for themselves. We also provide clean birthing kits with soap, razors, cord tie and garbage bag for women hwo have no where else to deliver but on the bare earth.
That is the hard cold reality for women and girls in many countries around the world.
I now sit transfixed — like many around the world — struggling to understand how more than 200 Nigerian girls could be abducted from their school by Boko Haram terrorists. The only ones that appear to be actively looking for them are their parents — some armed only with crude bow and arrows. Their own government took weeks to add urgency to the search and has been slow to accept help from the United States and Great Britain. No State of Emergency was issued.
Sadly, there’s a different reality for women and girls in many countries around the world. They’re seldom a priority to many governments. How else can you explain the almost 2 million women and girls raped, taken as child brides or killed in Congo? The rapes continue on a daily basis.
The women are raped when they go to fetch water, when they collect firewood, when they walk into town, in their homes and at night. No one is safe. Consider: A woman who works at St. Vincent, the small hospital where Footprints works in Bukavu. She went into the village to fetch rape survivors for a meeting with us, and never returned. Doctors eventually learned she was taken from the house where she was sleeping, raped and held captive to become the next wife of the chief. The doctors paid ransom for her and she was released. I see her on my twice annual visits to Congo. I have never known what to say to her. The best I can do is to tell her story here.
Like Nigeria, when the women and girls of Congo are removed from their villages, the government does almost nothing. The families look for the victims but will soon give up and return to their daily lives. Sometimes they cannot even look for their missing family members because they fear reprisal.
Reprisal is real. After Dr. Denis Mukwege, medical director at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, known globally for working with women who have been raped, returned from speaking out at the United Nations against mass rape, armed men awaited him. He barely escaped with his life as the men opened fire. His bodyguard was not so fortunate; he was killed.
Sadly, women in Bakuva and elsewhere believe the world does not care. If they did, they say, aggressive efforts would be mounted to locate rebel leaders from Joseph Kony in Uganda to Abubakar Shekau of Boko Haram in Nigeria and bring them to justice.
I support the efforts to find the girls in Nigeria. I commend the international community for speaking up loud and clear. Such activism makes a difference but only if it is sustained. Boko Haram has been around for 10 years. Of course, our immediate concern is to rescue the girls. Caution is due here; one wrong move and Boko Haram likely will kill all of them. They do not care about how the world thinks of them. They are arrogant, they are angry and they are evil.
I pray that the girls are able to be rescued but after that, we must go further. We must stand with the women and girls in Congo. The rapes of women and girls must stop. Girls must be free to get an education. It is a basic human right. Hence, the school must reopen and the government must dispatch guards to protect students. Finally, we must find the rebel leaders and bring them to justice. Women and girls must matter.