News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

March 15, 2014

KIEL MAJEWSKI: Sexual violence demands the world’s action

TERRE HAUTE — I have a lot to learn in life, but I am convinced of this: The day men share power equally with women is the day we will see true peace in this world. The day women and girls are valued as much as men and boys, and are treated with the same respect as their male counterparts, is the day we will finally see healthy societies.

March is International Women’s Month. I would like to share with you the story of a young woman named Mateso. She must be 20 years old now, but this story takes place when she was 13. Mateso (not her real name) lives in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has been wracked by war and violence for decades.

One day Mateso was walking to market when she was ambushed by armed men. They kidnapped her, enslaved her for a year, and raped her repeatedly. Mateso became pregnant. When the baby was due, the men used a knife to “help” with the vaginal delivery. The baby was stillborn.

Held captive with no medical attention, Mateso’s injuries started to draw flies. She was in such a dreadful condition that the men did not even think she might escape. But Mateso fled, walking for three nights straight and hiding during the day.

She eventually found refuge at Panzi Hospital in the city of Bukavu. If you have never heard of Panzi, stop reading this article and Google “Dr. Denis Mukwege.”

Dr. Mukwege is a gynecologist who founded Panzi to treat the many women who have survived sexual violence in the DRC. He has performed thousands of surgeries to repair their damaged bodies. He is known for performing several surgeries during 18-hour working days.

So Mateso has been receiving treatment at Panzi, and despite multiple surgeries, she still suffers from incontinence due to traumatic fistula. The last I heard, she was hopeful her injuries would fully heal with another surgery. There are many women in the same condition as Mateso. Their trauma is compounded because women survivors of rape are often stigmatized and rejected by their families. With no prospects for income, no family to help them, and often with children borne of rape in tow, these women are in a desperate situation. But if they remain hopeful and resilient, then I will, too.

I heard about Mateso’s story from Dr. Lee Ann De Reus, an associate professor at Penn State-Altoona. De Reus has been to DRC many times, and has spent hours interviewing the women of Panzi. It was during these interviews that she met Mateso. Though she was too young at the time to give her consent to participate in the study, the ebullient Mateso practically insisted on telling her story. “But it is so traumatic,” said De Reus. “Why was it so important for you to tell us?”

“I tell you my story because so many people don’t know!” Mateso said. “I want you to tell my story.” Well Mateso, here is your story, published in a newspaper some 8,000 miles away.

But why did this happen to her? Why has it happened to so many thousands of women in DRC, from ages 2 to 80?

The root causes go all the way back to the era of Belgian colonialism in the Congo. For more on this, read “King Leopold’s Ghost,” by Adam Hochschild. Since World War II, the conflict in the DRC has been the world’s deadliest, where some 6 million people have died since 1998.

The DRC has been blessed and cursed with rich deposits of mineral resources. Those minerals fuel the electronics all of us use on a daily basis, including smartphones and computers. Because Congo is a failed state, these mines are controlled by armed militia groups who fight for access. The reasons why this has translated into a plague of sexual violence are complex. The list includes the trauma of war, the widespread poverty in this failed state, the legacy of colonialism, gender norms, complicity and corruption among the government and neighboring countries, absolute impunity for the rapists, and our own mindless and insatiable consumption of electronics.

It is too easy for us to generalize about Congolese men (who are both victims and perpetrators of sexual violence) or regard these women with patronizing pity. They are strong. They are resilient. They do not need our pity. They need us to take action.

Check any notions of savior-hood. The solutions to this conflict are not easy, though they seem apparent: Treat trauma. End impunity. Facilitate economic independence for women. Foster the rehabilitation of government and civil society. Consume electronics more mindfully. There are good people and organized campaigns working on these solutions, but more people need to know stories like Mateso’s, and above all take action.

For those who want to help, don’t let the complexity daunt you. You can be part of the solution simply by telling someone else about Mateso’s story and pledging to learn more about the conflict. You will have the opportunity to do just that when Dr. De Reus visits Terre Haute this week. She will speak at Indiana State University’s Cunningham Memorial Library on Tuesday, March 18, at 6:30 p.m. about her experiences with the women of Panzi Hospital and the problem of sexual violence in the DRC. The event is free and open to the public.

Kiel Majewski is the Executive Director of CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center. He is an advocate for human rights and equality, and serves on the Indiana State University Diversity Council and Carl Wilkens Fellowship advisory board. He can be reached at kiel.majewski@gmail.com and on Twitter @kielmajewski.

 

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