Last week, protests erupted in the Democratic Republic of Congo in response to a controversial census bill that would postpone the country’s next elections. The current president, Joseph Kabila who has been in power since 2001, proposed to postpone the 2016 elections in order to conduct a nationwide census (projected to take three years) and conduct the elections after the census. Those opposed to the term extension are suspicious that this is Joseph Kabila’s ploy to remain in power, as the constitution of the DRC does not allow him to run another term. In the ensuing protests across the country, several people have been killed. After four days, protesters were victorious as the bill was amended to remove the requirement to hold the census before the next election. Following the people’s victory in Burkina Faso late last year, this is yet another promising illustration of the power of demonstration against corrupt government. Earlier this month, however, Panzi Hospital in Bukavu had a little-known victory that has major implications for a population in the DRC that is systematically overlooked: women who have been affected by gender-based violence.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has an extremely intricate history, much of which is unfortunately characterized by violence. From a violent colonial history with Belgium, to the first and second Congo War, millions of lives have been lost in a turbulent quest for political power and control of mineral-rich regions. Although the Second Congo War has long been over, mass violence and exploitation continues in the mineral-rich areas of Eastern Congo as several insurgent groups fight to control sale and export of valuable resources. Throughout the civil war, and the quest for power or control of resources, one thing remains relatively constant: the bodies of women and girls are the silent casualties of war. The use of rape as a weapon of war in the DRC has been particularly atrocious. In addition to the emotional trauma of sexual assault, tens of thousands of women are also coping with extreme physical trauma. Women have been brutalized in extremely heinous ways, including but not limited to, gang rape, and rape with various objects, such as machetes, gunshots, and hot items. For those that do survive, the medical complications are further exacerbated by the lack of infrastructure and resources in the area.
The Panzi Hospital of Bukavu, founded in 1996 by Dr. Denis Mukwege, has been working tirelessly to treat survivors of sexual violence in the Eastern DRC. The hospital treats over 3,000 women per year, and has treated over 30,000 survivors of sexual assault. In addition to medical attention, the hospital also provides survivors opportunities for new beginnings through therapeutic counseling, job training, education, outreach, and microcredit business loans. Shortly after having received the Freedom of Thought Award in October 2014, the Congolese government ordered the seizure of the hospital’s assets, accusing the hospital of tax evasion. Many believe that this was because Dr. Mukwege, whose outspokenness once made him the target of an assassination attempt, has been extremely critical of how little Congolese leaders have done to address gender-based violence. Subsequently, Dr. Mukwege filed several lawsuits, citing discriminatory action and violation of the DRC’s constitution, and was able to prove that Panzi Hospital is in fact up to date with its taxes, and that the hospital was being unfairly targeted. If it were not for the Panzi Foundation’s emergency fund (and donations from all over the world), many survivors with much-needed medical attention would have been in extremely precarious condition, and hospital employees would not have been paid. Panzi Hospital was able to resume normal operations on January 7, 2015.
The attempts to postpone elections and to discredit and constrain an institution like Panzi Hospital are indicative of the fragmented state of DRC’s current leadership. The continued violence against women in Eastern Congo has been largely ignored by leadership, and those who speak out on this disregard are unjustly punished. The successful protests indicate that citizens across the nation have had enough of leadership that is complicit in the perpetuation of violence, promotion of disunity, and exploitation of resources. As Panzi Hospital fights to keep its doors open, and advocates work to raise awareness about the continued violence,we can only hope that the 2016 election brings forth a generation of leaders that is ready to put an end to and prioritize the eradication of violence against women. In the meantime, let’s support and celebrate the brave men and women who are working against all odds to become a part of the solution.