Actor Ben Affleck has just launched a new charity that aims to bring attention and funding to community groups in eastern Congo, including local organizations that aid survivors of sexual violence. That's good news in this conflict-ravaged region where atrocities are committed daily against women and girls, perpetrators go unpunished and prospects of stopping them are daunting.
"Jambo" (welcome) Ben!
Affleck joins a small band of notables, including Secretary of State Clinton, The New York Times' columnist Nicholas Kristof and playwright Eve Ensler, who are speaking out against the epidemic of rape and sexual violence in North and South Kivu. The Kivus, verdant provinces bordering Rwanda and Burundi, have been plagued by violence since 1994 when Hutu genocidaires fleeing Rwanda arrived here. Regional wars ensued and seemingly unending conflict involving the Congolese military and other armed groups has raged ever since.
My colleagues at the International Rescue Committee run programs to prevent and respond to sexual violence in this region with the essential help of local partners. We've helped thousands of women recover and get back on their feet, but attacks go on. Our staff and the Congolese I've met here say the fundamental question is how to bring peace to the region and establish security.
Meeting this week with a group of community leaders in a small village an hour's drive from South Kivu's capital, Bukavu, I listened as they ticked off a list of challenges that are all symptoms of the instability:
Husbands leave in search of work and never return. Wives struggle to raise children on their own. Many children are orphaned or abandoned. Families can't afford school fees, schools are poorly constructed and teachers go unpaid. Health clinics frequently run out of medicine.
The community leaders stopped short of talking about incidents of sexual violence -- a subject many find taboo. But the next day, I visited an IRC counseling center in the town of Kalehe and two women shared stories of being attacked by uniformed men.
One woman was eight months pregnant and working in the fields when she was raped by four men. Her husband abandoned her afterward. The other woman was attacked on her way home from the market. Somehow, her husband holds her responsible for instigating the rape.
They are among tens of thousands of Congolese women and girls who have reported being sexually assaulted, and 80 percent of their attackers within the last year were soldiers or members of militias.
The IRC and other groups will continue to address the many social ills here and support local aid agencies, as Affleck will be doing. We can help survivors of rape to heal and try to sensitize men to respect women. But how can the root cause of the violence be addressed? Who will stop the armies -- the Congolese military and rebel factions -- that seem to think that preying on innocent women and children is their right and has no negative consequences?
Reform of the military and demobilization of armed groups must be undertaken by the United Nations in close coordination with the government of Congo. Other governments must support reform. And the U.N. peacekeepers must make the protection of civilians its top priority. This is not a simple task, to say the least, but every effort must made. The future of the Congo depends on it.
To learn more about the International Rescue Committee's work in Congo, please go to: http://www.theirc.org/where/congo.