Awareness in action: MBP students help sexual violence survivors in DRC

Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that there’s a world going on outside your Western blots and SNR imaging problems. However, ourselves and the students of the Department of Medical Biophysics (MBP) spurred a grass-roots initiative last year to address the growing horrors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

This is a campaign success story with a positive outcome—however, it belies a sobering and harsh reality.

The DRC, formerly Zaire, is a large country in central Africa roughly equal to the size of Western Europe. It is exceedingly rich in natural resources such as gold, copper, diamonds, petroleum and coltan (Columbite-tantalite)—the vital ingredient in cell phones, jet engines and computer chips. The country’s infrastructure, including the healthcare system, was left in tatters after decades of corruption under Mobutu’s dictatorship (1965-1997). By the time his rule ended, the country was so weakened that a year later Rwanda and Uganda, the DRC’s eastern neighbours, launched an attack to gain control over the plentiful natural resources. This fuelled six years of what some have called “Africa’s First World War” (1), involving the armed struggle between the government and numerous rebel groups from both within and around the DRC. Approximately 3.9 million people have died between 1998, when the major conflict started, and 2004 (1, 2). Currently, over 15,000 UN peacekeepers, particularly in the volatile eastern region, are deployed in the DRC under MONUC (Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies en République Démocratique du Congo (3).

Caught in the cross-fire of these warring factions, women are viewed as the enemy’s “reproductive machinery” and keepers of the community’s honour. Consequently, rape is employed as a deliberate, strategic tactic of war, resulting in profound human suffering.

Today, tens of thousands of women—young and old alike—continue to be targets for sexual slavery and brutal sexual violence on a mass scale.

We first became aware of the horrific situation in eastern DRC after reading a Globe and Mail article by Stephanie Nolen (4), who witnessed the consequences of the country’s collapsed health care system and the ravages of war on communities, families, and especially women and girls. We were inspired into action after hearing James Orbinski (former president of Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF) and Stephanie Nolen herself speak at UofT’s World AIDS Day events in 2004.

Orbinski’s message to UofT students was clear and impassioned, as anyone who has read his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on behalf of MSF will know. In this brief time of our lives, we can choose to use the privilege of our education not as empty vessels crammed with knowledge, but as critically thinking individuals who undertake the challenge of understanding the forces shaping the world, and ultimately affect change.

Together we designed a modest campaign strategy to lift the veil of silence surrounding sexual violence in the DRC and help in a practical way. In speaking to Stephanie Nolen, who journeyed through the DRC to visit many health care centres in various states of disrepair, we decided that the Panzi Hospital, in the eastern province of South Kivu—a functioning hospital privately funded through local charity and a Swedish non-governmental organization (NGO, Swedish Pentecostal Mission)—offered the most hope. It already had a working infrastructure and limited resources allowing Director Dr. Denis Mukwege to help hundreds of women and girls.

The campaign goal was immediate: to supply the Panzi Hospital with urgent surgical equipment so that Dr. Mukwege could increase his throughput of vesico-vaginal fistula repairs. Fistulas, most often afflicting young girls, are brought about by violent sexual assault or childbirth complications. These women suffer incontinence and foul-smelling odours due to the leakage of waste via holes torn through the vaginal wall into the bladder or rectum.

Dr. Mukwege is only one of two doctors in the eastern region trained to perform fistula repair surgery. He operates on hundreds of women and girls each year, many of whom have walked for days to reach him and who are often branded as outcasts by the males in their villages. They are not only burdened by debilitating physical pain, but must carry the weight of shame and guilt heaped on them by their society (2).

In light of this pressing need, a secondary goal of this campaign was to mobilize the Canadian government to actively denounce the human rights violations occasioned by the DRC’s rampant sexual violence, and provide funds for our initiative. The MBP student body, along with other concerned individuals and organizations, signed petitions to the then Minister of International Cooperation, Aileen Carroll, while raising money for medical supplies. Many may remember the petition drive at the end of the weekly student seminars at MBP’s Sunnybrook campus.

The petitions were presented in Ottawa this past June in the House of Commons Lobby, during a private audience granted by the Minister’s Parliamentary Secretary, Paddy Torsney. If there was ever a time to experience the government propagandizing its accomplishments, this was it. We were told that the federal government was strenuously engaged in fighting sexual violence as a weapon of war in a multitude of ways (read: appallingly little), and we need not worry. We left without obtaining a commitment from the government to make a public statement against the practice of sexual violence as a war tactic, and our petition was not tabled in the House of Commons.

The extent to which the new Canadian federal government will step up to the plate, is also likely to disappoint. The current Conservative minority government had the fewest number of women candidates compared to any of the other parties—a disparity that is likely to transcend their foreign policy. Already, after only a few months in power, Stephen Harper has been quick to defend Canada’s military leadership and national interests as top priorities (5). The concept of gender-based violence, let alone rethinking how Canada does development, is so far off the political radar that Canadian NGOs will have to play an even more important role in Africa.

A meeting with the Canadian Development Agency (CIDA) proved to be equally frustrating. While CIDA lauded our proposal and agreed with its urgent necessity, it was unable to overcome its bureaucratic overhead in order to provide funding. However, just last week, CIDA announced new money that will indirectly address sexual violence in the DRC. The additional $15 million to the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) (6) has been traveling through the CIDA pipeline for almost a year and is money that can be used right now to make a difference.

However, we did mention a positive outcome to this story, which came from the Canadian Embassy in Kinshasa, DRC’s capital city. We were awarded a grant through the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, a fund created to support a variety of community-based development initiatives with a focus on, for example, health and human rights, education, and environmental protection. In addition, the Embassy offered to facilitate the transport of supplies from Ottawa to Bukavu—a major concern given the unstable conditions, poor roads and lack of postal system in DRC.

With this grant, the Embassy will purchase key items on Dr. Mukwege’s wish list. Our campaign donations, currently amounting to $3000, will be used to purchase one year’s supply of sutures for the Panzi Hospital—enough for approximately 1800 operations. For those who still wish to donate (as little as $2 goes a long way), the campaign fundraising is on-going and further information is available at the website below.

This recent partnership with the Canadian Embassy opens a wide range of possibilities. Not only does it enable us to deliver medical supplies, but it encourages a culture of awareness in action among students, private citizens, and organizations. As it turns out, our project is not that unusual. For example, Dr. David Cechetto from the University of Western Ontario is directing a Canadian program that will help rebuild a shattered health system in neighbouring Rwanda. The ultimate goals of these projects are to expose the realities of human rights abuses and place them on the global agenda where they belong. These kinds of projects are a first step in addressing the broader needs required to deal with the political, psychological, social and cultural climate surrounding the use sexual violence against women as a weapon of war.

Stay tuned.

For more information please visit http://www.medicalreform.ca/congo for updates and related links (7).

Cathy Nangini and Brad MacIntosh are PhD students in the Department of Medical Biophysics, University of Toronto, at the Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre. Cathy Nangini uses noninvasive neuroimaging techniques to understand the neurophysiological processes involved in tactile sensory processing. Brad MacIntosh is developing new Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging techniques to improve stroke recovery research.

References and Notes

1. B. Coghlan et al., Lancet 367, 44 (2006).

2. Christian Relief Network, Annual Report, 2004 (2004; http://www.crn.no/birary?id=68437)

3. United Nations, MONUC, Basic Facts (2006; http://www.monuc.org/news.aspx?newsID=887)

4. S. Nolen, “The War On Women,” (Globe and Mail, Bell Globemedia, Toronto, 27 November, pp. F1, 2004).

5. A. Dunfield, “PM urges Canadian troops to remain strong,” (Globe and Mail, Bell Globemedia, Toronto, 13 March, 2006).

6. CIDA, Press Release, http://www.acdi-cida.gc.ca/cida_ind.nsf/vLUAIIDocByIDen/E22993DB013FBEBF8525712C00740E53?OpenDocument (9 March 2006).

7. The authors wish to acknowledge the unwavering help of honoré confrères Olivier Couture and Normand Robert, for infinitely many French translations and providing support and ideas. Thank you to all students for supporting this campaign.

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