Sunday, November 30, 2014

A challenge to the international community

Written by Dominique Vidale-Plaza, the Founder of Channel Initiative

Image from here
Violence against women (VAW) is most commonly understood as any violent act or series of acts, committed against women and girls. Generally, people understand that VAW can be rape, sexual abuse or physical abuse. Some would even go as far as to say that VAW could be understood as psychological abuse as well - anything with the potential to cause emotional harm or damage a woman or girl’s mental health.

Nonetheless, there is still a lot of argument surrounding the meaning of the term, and whether it is too broad, too narrow, not gender-sensitive enough, too gender-conscious, too direct or too much of a euphemism. And maybe each argument has its merits, I won’t get into debating the usability of the term VAW, but I will get into another slightly different perspective of its meaning, that I, personally, find to be the most applicable, particularly here in Congo, where the disempowerment of women is so entrenched, all-encompassing and severe, that it can be classed as a form of violence in and of itself - VAW as any act that infringes upon or damages the inherent dignity and integrity of a woman or girl’s self.

I first heard of the term a person’s ‘integrity’ while stuck in the mud with Dr. Denis Mukwege, several years ago, on the way home from Panzi Hospital. Of course I knew what ‘integrity’ was and what it meant, but as we watched women, men and children alike slip and slide in the goopy mud that covered the road and the hills that lined it, after a heavy downfall, he used the word ‘integrity’ in a way that I hadn’t heard before, or had heard, but perhaps never fully understood. The integrity of a person’s self, his or her value, dignity and potential that they were born with, the wholeness of themselves, them – as individuals, as bodies, hearts and souls.

In my last four years working in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that international media has sadly often touted as ‘the world’s worst place on earth to be a woman’ – unfortunately branding the Congo as a single-faceted issue, an intractable crisis and a hopeless cause, I have learned that violence against women is so much more than a raised hand, a pointed gun, or an unwanted sexual advance or act, tragic and wrong though these very well are. Now, I believe that, violence against women in the Congolese context in particular, has a lot more to do with compromising, damaging, and/or tearing apart a woman or girl’s personal integrity, really, anything that, to quote a local Congolese official from Goma that I recently spoke to, ‘prevents (her) from living the life that (she) was born to have’. 

When I first came to Congo, I was horrified to see women carrying crocus bags larger than themselves and oftentimes definitely heavier than them, on their backs, bent over backward, nothing but a padded rope holding on to their foreheads, with their fingers gripping the sides, to help get some of the weight off their backs and necks. Feeling the injustice of this, witnessing the impossibility of it and the seeming farness of a possible solution, was probably the first time I began thinking about what, violence against women, truly meant. This, coupled with my discussions with Dr. Mukwege on people’s integrity, their value as humans, their meaning and worth as individuals, gave me pause. Because surely, violence could mean more than being abused by a husband or boyfriend, or being raped – since ultimately, the end result of so many other acts, or circumstances wind up being quite similar, a woman brought to her knees.

While I see many women rise up, stand tall, make waves, claim victory and display incredible strength, during the course of my work in Eastern Congo, I do also see many others, who have not yet claimed victory, who are still on their knees, disempowered, traumatized, hurt and broken. Many of the brokenness I’ve seen has stemmed from being a victim of sexual violence, conflict in communities, family issues, and the crisis that afflicts so much of Congo, that Channel Initiative is working to address, a lack of access to life-saving health-care.

Not having access to health, is commonplace in the DRC. While it is not always seen as something catastrophic or incredibly tragic, it is. Particularly for women and girls, who are the ones that suffer the most from this systemic challenge.

Without reliable access to health-care, women and girls are at extraordinary risk. It is very difficult not to think of the lack of access to even basic health care, far less for comprehensive emergency obstetric care, or post-sexual violence care, as akin to a form of violence against women, when maternal mortality and maternal related death is one of the top killers of women in Congo and on this continent. It is hard to not instinctively feel it in my gut, that ‘this is violent’, when we learn of women living with untreated fistula for years, shunned by their families, in pain, and with nowhere to go. Or when we come across women who have given birth in the jungle alone, and have had to cut the umbilical cord of their own baby, with whatever they could find near to them. Or the young woman whose stomach was so bloated and distorted due to an infection that she looked pregnant, but couldn’t get to a hospital, or the two year old survivor of sexual violence that couldn’t be treated in her community and had to be rushed to Panzi Hospital.

Violent, is the only way I can think to describe the lack of access to healthcare for Congolese women and girls, particularly those in rural Congo. Violent, is the best way to describe a system wrought with inefficiencies, corruption, the quest for personal gains, and of course external challenges as well, that prevents a woman from safely giving birth in a health facility, or that prevents a survivor from receiving the medical and psychological care that he/she so urgently needs. Violent is the first word that comes to mind, when I think of the results of lack of access to health-care, which are long-lasting, impactful and tear at the fibers of Congolese families and communities.

For this year’s 16 days of Activism against Violence Against Women, I challenge the international community, to extend their understandings of violence against women, to put in meaningful thought into what the ‘integrity of a person’ means, outside of the typical sense, and to consider the fact that thousands of women die wantonly each year due to lack of access to care when they need it the most, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere. Consider all these things, and then act.