The Misogyny Behind an Attempted Assassination of a Man in Congo

I spoke to Eve Ensler, the founder of V-Day, an anti-violence activist movement that operates the City of Joy, which supports survivors of sexualized violence in Congo with the Fondacion Panzi. Ensler, a close friend of Mukwege's, told me she was in shock that the war had come to Mukwege's home, that the message was meant to say: We can get all of you, even your leaders. Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, told me that the attack on Mukwege, so close to MONUSCO headquarters, has left people fed up.

"This is a red line that's been crossed," Sirkin said.

But Ensler is firm in her belief that this can be a pivotal moment for Congolese women, who have long been caught in the war's undertow.

"The real question is, how do we examine this situation in order to get the world to pay attention?" Ensler said. She trained her sights quickly on the international community members who, she said, are dropping the ball on Congo.

"Why aren't the players in this situation -- Rwanda, the Congolese government, the U.K., and the U.S. -- being held responsible?" Ensler asked.

The answer is complicated, said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a Congo expert who has closely following developments in the country for 13 years. The problem in terms of Rwanda, which is allegedly supporting the M23 -- the militia heading up an insurgency for the past six or so months -- involves three fronts: security, economics, and politics. Then there's "genocide guilt," she said, which means that countries like the United States may give Rwanda a pass when it comes to stopping the M23 militia, which is being armed and supported from Rwandan soil.

There is great opportunism at play, said Van Woudenberg, in the ongoing clashes: A number of the militias are taking advantage of a power vacuum caused by a weak Congolese government and Rwanda is keeping the fighting over the border from its own country by supporting a militia that does its bidding. The result is devastating for the Congolese population, which has been forced to live with repeated cycles of violence. Also, Rwanda has benefited immensely from Congo's economic wealth, which includes profits from the mining of cassiterite, coltan, and gold, but also agriculture, she said, especially in eastern Congo.

Then there's "genocide guilt," which means that countries like the United States may give Rwanda a pass when it comes to stopping the M23 militia.

The UN is also causing great consternation among Congo-watchers. Van Woudenberg said that while the UN has come out to say that neighboring countries that support rebels in eastern Congo should stop, they've never come out and actually named Rwanda. Van Woudenberg called it "a dereliction of duty."

The language Lewis used was equally strong: "This loss of life and unbelievable pattern of raping women incessantly year after year -- the world doesn't act, because, of course, it's women," said Lewis. "Universal misogyny makes it impossible for the UN to act. It's contemptible."

In the past few days, the U.K. and the UN have put out statements in support of Mukwege. The United States has not. The State Department did not return requests for comment for this story.

Closer to home, what the citizens of eastern Congo require is immediate security. That means providing patrols -- whether from MONUSCO, which is, for the most part, locally mistrusted, or otherwise -- at hospitals, radio stations, even for roads. Sirkin described the road from Bukavu to Panzi Hospital as "disgusting." "Women who are in labor or raped have to go on this dirt road," she said. "It's bumpy as all-get-out and virtually impassable in this rainy season. It's an example of the massive infrastructure failure in Congo and a disgrace to the women and staff that they have to get to the hospital in this outrageous way."

Lewis told me that a doctor at Panzi Hospital told him within hours of the attack that they aren't relying on the police or the United Nations to secure the hospital. Rather, he said, "They are protecting themselves."

Beyond that, the people who are trying to tell the world what is happening need immediate attention, said Van Woudenberg. She called the attack on Mukwege a "terrible sign" in light of a recent rash of attacks on human rights defenders, including journalists.

"When there starts to be attacks on individuals like him, it makes so many lower-level people scared and it silences people," she said. "I'd say we're at a peak of attacks on civilians and those who speak out. When I heard about Dr. Mukwege being attacked, my antennae began vibrating, saying that we're in real trouble again in eastern Congo."

On top of the attacks on human-rights defenders, rapes are on the rise, according to Van Woudenberg and Mukwege himself, who told us in New York: "This year, I am once again operating on women whose genitals were destroyed by rape and other atrocities."

Christine Schuler Deschryver, the Congo director of V-Day, told me: "We just see the never-ending lines of women and girls waiting in the corridor of the hospital to be repaired."

Women Under Siege, the project I direct at the Women's Media Center, has documented at least 10 different reasons women are being raped in Congo -- everything from attempts to gain hold of natural resources to a belief that Satan made them do it. The conflict and its attending rape, not to mention the lack of political will that allows it to continue, are complex, but not incomprehensible.

Presented by

Lauren Wolfe is the director of Women Under Siege, a Women's Media Center initiative on sexualized violence in conflict. Wolfe is a former senior editor at the Committee to Protect Journalists. She writes regularly at laurenmwolfe.com.

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