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2009-08-12

Clinton Unveils US Plan to Combat Sexual Violence in Visit to Eastern Congo

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with survivors of violent sexual assault in the war-ravaged eastern Congo city of Goma in the first-ever visit by a high-level American official to the area. The staggeringly high number of rapes in the DRC have doubled and in some cases tripled since the deployment of a US- and UN-backed Congolese army force in January. We speak with Congolese human rights activist Christine Schuler Deschryver, who met with Clinton on Tuesday. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s a story that’s been all over the news networks over the past couple of days: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s curt response to a question at a town hall meeting in Kinshasa when a Congolese student seemed to ask her to give her husband’s opinion on a local issue.

    HILLARY CLINTON: Wait. You want to tell you what my husband thinks? My husband is not the Secretary of State. I am. So, you ask my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I’m not going to be channeling my husband.

AMY GOODMAN: It turns out the student who posed the question had intended to ask Clinton about President Obama’s opinion, not former President Bill Clinton’s. Nevertheless, the sound bite has been played dozens of times on network television and has distracted attention from one of the main purposes of Clinton’s visit to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo: the issue of sexual violence against women.

Secretary Clinton traveled to the war-ravaged eastern city of Goma Tuesday in the first-ever visit by a high-level American official to the area and met with survivors of violent sexual assault at a refugee camp.

The staggeringly high number of rapes in the country has doubled and in some cases tripled since the deployment of a US- and UN-backed Congolese army force in the eastern Congo this January. The United Nations estimates at least 3,500 women and girls have been sexually brutalized this year, adding to the 200,000 cases of rape recorded in the country since 1996. In a report released Monday, a coalition of international humanitarian and human rights groups blamed the army for the recent spike in violence and warned that the UN-backed peace effort was becoming a, quote, "human tragedy."

The Congolese President Joseph Kabila has declared a policy of "zero tolerance" for sexual violence, but only a handful of soldiers have been convicted of rape so far.

Secretary Clinton called for more prosecutions and announced a $17 million plan to assist survivors and help prevent sexual violence. One part of the plan involves greater US training for the Congolese army.

    HILLARY CLINTON: We could be of help to the Congolese military, including enhancing the training that we are doing, trying to professionalize the military, trying to ensure that the soldiers get paid.

AMY GOODMAN: Congolese human rights activist Christine Schuler Deschryver has been leading the struggle against the epidemic of rape in the Congo, what she calls a, quote, "femicide." I interviewed her in October of 2007 in our firehouse studio. This is how she explained the sexual violence in her country.

    CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER:

    And we are not — I’m sorry just to talk like this — we are not talking about normal rapes anymore. We are talking about sexual terrorism, because they destroyed, and they — you cannot imagine what’s going on in Congo. Rape is a taboo, I think, in most of African countries, so the women who accept to go to the hospital or to be registered, it’s because they don’t have a choice anymore. They have to go and be repaired, because we are talking about new surgery to repair the women, because they’re completely destroyed.

    AMY GOODMAN: And the women who come to this hospital, what —- they have been raped, and they have been physically -—

    CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER:

    Destroyed.

    AMY GOODMAN: How? What is the operation? What is the — what is the operation that they go through?

    CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER:

    The operation —- today we are talking about repair surgery, because these women have to be repaired. They are not just rape like usual rape, but they put hot plastics inside the organs. They put woods, they put bamboos, they put everything -—

    AMY GOODMAN: Guns?

    CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER:

    Yeah, guns. They shot inside the women, so they’re completely destroyed. We have some survivors in these hospitals since more than three years, so every two months or every three months they have to be re-operated again. And it’s impossible, you know, to keep all these women in this hospital. We don’t have room anymore.

    AMY GOODMAN: They suffer from fistula. Can you explain what that is?

    CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER:

    I’m not a doctor. It’s quite very difficult. But I know that when they have fistula, it’s like, you know, instead of — it’s everything, urine and things, everything comes out.

    AMY GOODMAN: They’re completely incontinent.

    CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER:

    You cannot control. You’re out of control, so these people smell very bad, and they have infections. And they cannot live, you know, in communities. And they have to be repaired by heavy surgery.

    AMY GOODMAN: So they can’t control their urine or their bowel movement, and so —

    CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER:

    Not at all. So everything just go out when they’re walking, when they’re sleeping. It’s just —

    AMY GOODMAN: They become pariahs in their community.

    CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER:

    Yeah, yeah, of course. And also, you have to know that in your community, when they know you are raped, you are fired from the village. They stigmatize you, and also the husband, if you survive, he will just ask you to leave, most of the time with the children.


AMY GOODMAN: That was Congolese human rights activist and director of V-Day Congo, Christine Schuler Deschryver. Well, she met with Secretary of State Clinton in the Congo yesterday and joins us now on the telephone from Bukavu in the eastern DRC.

Christine, welcome to Democracy Now! What is the significance of the Secretary of State’s trip?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Good morning, Amy.

I have to say it was a great honor for us, you know, to have the first Secretary of State here in this war zone, especially coming to Goma. And the goal that she had was to really see by herself what’s going on with the women here in DRC. So, we all — we were all so moved. And since the last thirteen years, it was the first day that we started to have hope again. So we were deeply moved, and we’re so thankful to Hillary for coming here in DRC.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what exactly Secretary Clinton has promised for the people of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in terms of aid?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Yeah, first of all, she promised like $17 million to fight like the sexual violence. And what was really, really important for us is she said that $3 million will be like to train a new police force, especially with women police force to fight against sexual violence. And that will be very, very important. And also, most of the funds will go like for training of healthcare and medical care, counseling, economic, etc.

So we were —- we are all very happy about all the aid, but I have to say that we already have lots of promises, and now we have to work closely together to ensure that the meeting results in real change that she delivers. So we will really be following up that everything will happen the way she promised it yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, what about this issue of the US—, the UN-backed Congolese army in the area now increasing the rate of rapes? And we’re actually not just talking about women and girls, but also of men and boys, as well. Is that right, Christine?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: That’s totally right. I have to say, since they started like with the new operation called “Kimia II” with the Congolese army and supported by the UN forces, the situation here on the ground is terrible, terrible, because now we have the militias just — not just going and rape the women, they are burning villages, they are killing the people, they’re raping men. They are like — they already use the same methods like Janjaweeds in Darfur. So now the level of violence in both North and South Kivu is just incredible. There’s no more words to describe what’s going on. And we still, like — we all, like — like the international NGOs, the local, the national NGOs, all of them made reports to alert the world that there’s a tragedy going on with this operation. But they’re still continuing, and we don’t understand that.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine Schuler Deschryver, we thank you very much for being with us, the Congolese human rights activist, speaking to us from Bukavu in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. She met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday. She is the director of V-Day Congo, the organization against [...] violence against women and girls that was founded by Eve Ensler.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll speak with Jeff Sharlet about The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. But first, we’ll stay in Africa to talk about other aspects of Secretary Clinton’s trip.

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