TOPICS > Health

In Congo, Attitudes About Rape as a Weapon Remain Tough to Change

September 13, 2010 at 7:00 PM EDT
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Gwen Ifill talks with two experts familiar with the sexual violence that has occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past decade.
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GWEN IFILL: For more on the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we’re joined by Margot Wallstrom, the United Nation’s special representative on sexual violence and conflict, and Zainab Salbi, the founder and CEO of Women for Women International, an organization that aids women in conflict zones.

Margot Wallstrom, how extensive, how systematic is what we were seeing right now in Eastern Congo?

MARGO WALLSTROM, special representative on sexual violence and conflict, United Nations: I think this demonstrates that women have become today’s front soldiers. And as a colleague of mine has said, that it can be more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier. It is widespread, and it exists not only in the DRC, but in other wars and conflicts as well. So we should not call it cultural, not even sexual. But it’s criminal. And this is where we have to focus our efforts right now to end impunity, to send a strong message that this is not allowed. It’s criminal, and we’ll go after the perpetrators.

GWEN IFILL: You talk about going after the perpetrators. There are so many reports that the United Nations should have been there or had information that at least there was rebel activity in this area where this latest series of mass rapes happened.

Did the U.N. drop the ball?

MARGOT WALLSTROM: I think that it’s important to, as we have done, we’ve looked at sort of the shortcomings of peacekeepers in this case where information was not rightly interpreted or where they did not act as they should have. And we will also correct that and follow up and do our homework.

But that must not allow us to lose focus on the perpetrators, because I think this is also very important. We need that spotlight as well to make sure that we deter and send a strong message to those who commit these crimes, and also make sure that with the help of the government and the national army, that we can actually make an effort to find them and put them to justice.

GWEN IFILL: Zainab Salbi, this is not the first time we’ve had this conversation about rape as a weapon of war. How extensive is it? How addressable is it?

ZAINAB SALBI, Women for Women International: It’s very extensive, unfortunately. It has happened historically. It is taking one of the worst shapes in Congo. About a thousand women is getting raped every month in the last 12 years, according to the State Department. This is a horrible, horrible atrocity that it’s facing. I think part of stopping it or addressing it is the political will. The truth of the matter, the international community has not shown political will to stop this violence, and to see that violence against women in Congo as a violence against the whole population and as an indicator for the direction of that country and the world.

We know the U.N. and others know actually who are the perpetrators. These are public perpetrators, not secret ones. We know who are financing them. There are 40 men who — it’s a public record. Their cell phones, their flight itineraries, their movement is a public record. There is no political will to do actions about the Congo. Refugees on top of it are living in this situation. We keep on focusing on the perpetrators, as opposed to what can we do about it, political will in arresting them, protecting the victims and providing for the victims after what they endured.

GWEN IFILL: Is thereto not a domestic responsibility? Is the government in the DRC incapable of doing this? Does this all have to fall on the international community?

ZAINAB SALBI: Not at all. But it shouldn’t all also fall on the DRC government. No, the DRC — the Congo is a huge country, first of all. It’s very centralized. Eastern Congo historically has not been in strong relationship with the central government. There’s a huge level of corruption, so that contributes to a lot of it. And of course it’s a lot of level of minds and resources in Eastern Congo that have many players from neighboring countries and from others who are contributing to go that crisis.

GWEN IFILL: Margot Wallstrom, I want to ask you to respond to what Zainab just said, which is that this is a matter of political will around the world, and that basically the international agencies look away.

MARGOT WALLSTROM: Well, this was brought up just a couple of weeks ago in the Security Council, so at least the international community, I think, has at this time reacted very, very strongly. And I think we need to on parallel tracks, and at the same time we need to mobilize the political will. That is absolutely correct.

We need to make sure that we militarily go after and find the perpetrators, because this is the way to end impunity. It has to start with finding these guys and putting them to justice. And I think we also need to improve, of course, the way we do peacekeeping, so how to harmonize also what the U.N. does. But again, that will play always a limited role in such a vast country. We can never at the same time cover all the geographical areas and so on, but we can do better. And this is what we have to make sure we get better training and so on.

So I agree that this has been — it’s an expression of the fact that women also lack a voice or respect in those countries. And it has to be seen together with the fact that there are economic interests in this country that also helps to fuel the conflict. And that’s why I welcome actually President Kabila’s initiative to now ban mining activities in this part of the country. I think at least all of those things contribute to us being more effective in addressing the problem.

GWEN IFILL: Zainab Salbi, we just saw the women in that Lindsey Hilsum piece. We saw the men actually talking in that piece. They’re part of a program that you run in Congo. What is the point in hearing from these men? What is that about?

ZAINAB SALBI: Well, what Women for Women International believes is that we must talk to the men to raise their awareness about the importance of stopping this violence. And I actually believe out of many interviews with hundreds of men that this change is possible.

So we work with men in leadership positions — the mayor, the pastor, the military commander, the governor and others, and the soldiers, as we saw. And I personally interviewed one military commander who said, “Before I entered this training” — because we tell them, if you want to be a good leader, you need to understand what the women in your population are asking for and demanding.

So this one military commander, he said, “Before I entered this program, every time I entered another man’s house and I had a gun and he didn’t have a gun. I never questioned about raping his wife. I always raped his wife until I realized that I could get HIV and that I could die, and half of my soldiers could die.” So this very military commander now abolished rape and punished any soldier who is raping. And eventually, a year later, when I met him, he had moved from very coldhearted argument to a more moral one as he got closer to –

GWEN IFILL: But about his own self-interest.

ZAINAB SALBI: But it’s about his self-interest. But the point is here, we have to look at multifaceted approaches. We have to talk because we really need to stop this rape. And if it’s as simple as correlating HIV with rape, then we need to make that simple correlation .

GWEN IFILL: Margot Wallstrom, I want to ask you about something. A former U.N. official who was in the Congo said it’s about the question of apathy. And he said, “If you realize you can’t deal with this situation, you may just decide to do nothing.”

Is that — assuming that right now that you’re on top of this and you want, moving forward, to address this issue, up until now — this has been going on for years and years — has apathy been as much of a problem?

MARGOT WALLSTROM: I wouldn’t say so because I think that the U.N. response has become more and more effective in that actually, we have a much higher level of awareness. We have — for example, we presented an inventory of best peacekeeping practices where we learn more about protecting civilians. And that, of course, means women, and asking women.

So even in the Congo they have these market patrols accompanying women to the market or to the water well. And that, I think, has helped a lot. Also to deepen the understanding of women’s need of protection. And I think it has helped to prevent also rapes, and that is also in other parts of the world where we have wars and conflicts. So I think this is not true. I think we have put this higher up on the political agenda. But we still — let me just point out that this is an international — it’s a crime.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you about that.

MARGOT WALLSTROM: And it’s a violation of human rights. And I think it has to be treated that way. I don’t think we have time to wait for sort of a moral understanding. I think there has to be command responsibility. There has to be military and civil justice. And this is very important, and serves as a signal also to the soldiers, because they have to obey orders. And it has to be very clear that there is responsibility. Thank God also the ICC brings up these cases now.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

MARGOT WALLSTROM: So, in the international criminal tribunals there is also a case on rape.

GWEN IFILL: All right. Margot Wallstrom of the United Nations, special representative on sexual violence and conflict. And Zainab Salbi, thank you both very much.