Over 300 km in a little under 14 days, covered entirely on foot. That’s the gruelling challenge a group of Congolese activists set for themselves when they decided to march from Paris to Brussels to draw attention to the plight of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
have long been used as a weapon of war in DRC, which is still plagued by army and militia violence
despite the official end of the country’s five-year war in 2003. Sexual violence is particularly rife in the turbulent border region of North Kivu, where humanitarian groups estimate that one in three women has been raped at least once
in her lifetime. According to Anneka Van Woudenberg, a senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch, rape in the east African country has become “the norm”
because of the “widespread nature” of the conflict in the country.
It is this staggering level of brutality that the Congolese marchers aim to denounce. Organised jointly with the Association of Journalists of the Schengen Area (AJES
) and French feminist group Ni Putes Ni Soumises
, the march left Paris on June 30, the anniversary of DRC’s independence, and arrived in Brussels on July 13, stopping in twelve French and Belgian towns along the way.
The complex and sensitive nature of the issue was highlighted on the march’s final day, when a dispute broke out after several participants accused a Congolese woman who joined the march in Brussels of having ‘colluded with rapists’. The woman eventually left the group, yet the incident nevertheless highlighted the rawness of emotions surrounding this painful issue. Organisers issued a brief statement
regretting the incident but stressed that it should not overshadow the march’s core message.
French restaurant-owners offer a free meal to the marchers, in a show of support. Video posted on Dailymotion by afriqueredaction.
"Over 1,000 women per day were raped in DR Congo over a period of one year. This has to stop."
Maggy Tembe is from DR Congo, she has lived in Belgium for 20 years. She is a member of the Belgian grassroots movement “Tous ensemble pour la cause des femmes en RDC” (All together to support the women of DRC), which participated in the Paris-Brussels March.
My group and I joined the marchers when they arrived in Belgium, on July 9. We walked with them all day Saturday, but not all the way to Brussels. Not everyone walked the whole 300km from Paris to Brussels - that takes courage, and good shoes! A core group of about five people covered the whole distance, and they were joined at every town by some 50 to 100 supporters who accompanied them for part of the way. In total, I’d say at least 2,000 people participated in the march. Everywhere the marchers went, they received a warm and emphatic response. They were hosted by the mayors of every French town on their route and met with several Belgian senators.
“The majority of abuses remain unreported”
Our main goal is to raise awareness of the situation for women in DRC, and send a clear message that the unbearable and systemic violence they are subjected to has to stop. Over 1,000 women per day were raped between 2006 and 2007. [This estimate, made by the American Journal of Public Health, is significantly higher than the previous estimate of 16,000 rapes per year made by the UN]. Today, clinics and health centres are reporting over 40 rapes per day, but that is only the ones they are aware of, when victims actually come in for care. The majority of abuses remain unreported, as many women feel too humiliated and broken to discuss their ordeal.
Mass rape in DRC is already legally considered a war crime. Yet the extent and nature of the violence is such that we believe it should be recognised as the genocide – or rather femicide - of the women of DRC. Genocide because women are being targeted as a group, indiscriminately. Feminicide because even though they don't always die, the shame and ostracism they are subjected to after being rape is like a double death. The acts of abuse committed are horrible beyond imagination: sharp objects are inserted in women’s vaginas, their genital labia are cut off, their breasts are cut off…
“We are calling for the creation of an international penal court specially dedicated to war crimes in DRC”
Rape is used as a mass weapon by every armed group in the country, be they Congolese troops or rebel militias. There is evidence that much of the abuse is committed by members of foreign forces present in DR Congo, notably from Burundi, Rwanda and Angola. For this reason, we are calling for the creation of an international penal court specially dedicated to war crimes in DRC. Now that the work of the Special Tribunal for Rwanda is coming to a close, we feel it is a good time to invest time and energy into launching a thorough and meticulous investigation into war crimes in DRC.
It is no secret who the warlords responsible for ordering mass rapes are. Also, UN resolution 1820 has already laid the legal groundwork for prosecuting rape as a war crime or even an act of genocide. Now all that is needed is the political will and courage to do so – and we hope events like our march will help bring this about. These crimes have been going on for 16 years now. Enough is enough.
The Paris-Brussels March in pictures
Photo: Roger Bongos for Afrique Rédaction.
Photo: Roger Bongos for Afrique Rédaction.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Lorena Galliot.