Dr. Joseph Ruminjo is Clinical Director of the Fistula Care Project.
What’s happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other conflict settings is horrifying. When soldiers, militia, uniformed personnel—but also civilians—rape or sexually assault a woman, the idea is to intimidate her, to hurt her physically and mentally. By doing this, they also intimidate her husband, her family, and the community in general, making them feel powerless. The militia wants to show that they can do anything they want and get away with it. And unfortunately, for the most part, they do get away with it. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in conflict settings, but just a handful of cases have been taken to court and prosecuted successfully.
There’s been progress in curbing this violence, but it’s been slow. This is not a problem that can be tackled by the woman or her community. It can’t be tackled by medical personnel, or by women’s rights advocates, or even by lawyers. It’s not something that can be tackled by United Nations agencies. It’s not even something that can be tackled by the militia or national government alone. It will take collaboration amongst all of these groups to change things around.
The conflict is partly driven by business interests and greed, especially with the mineral wealth in the Congo—gold, diamonds, and coltan, an ore that contains elements used in cell phones and electronics. So the mining companies need to be involved too.
There was some positive movement when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Congo recently, once again bringing the atrocities to the attention of the international media and the key players, who need to keep raising awareness and increasing pressure on our leaders.
Meanwhile, we can also improve the lives of women actually living with the injuries and indignities that are often a result of sexual violence, such as traumatic fistula. One of EngenderHealth’s areas of expertise is training health providers to be better at counseling, so we’re developing special guidance for those who treat victims of traumatic fistula. In the Congo, we’re assisting a hospital that Secretary Clinton visited, the HEAL Africa Hospital—where Dina received surgery for fistula in Half the Sky. There and at the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, we’re expanding and improving surgical repair services for women suffering from traumatic and obstetric fistula.
Since I began practicing as an obstetrician-gynecologist, I’ve treated many women with fistula. And usually they are in a really bad state physically, but even more so emotionally and socially. They tend to be ostracized—or they ostracize themselves. They usually can’t continue with their livelihoods, so they are amongst the poorest of the poor. If you’re able to provide surgical repair and stop that continuous leakage of urine, it dramatically changes a woman’s life, and her family’s. For me, to be part of an organization that supports this transformation, I find it to be very fulfilling—making a difference in the lives of these women. It will take a coordinated effort to stop this horrific violence against women and to restore the lives of those living with the consequences, but we can do it—if we put our minds and hearts toward it.