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Humanitarian and health officials have called the eastern DRC the worst place in the world for women. Brutal rapes have become a commonplace weapon of war, and doctors have even described the situation as sexual terrorism.
The Panzi Hospital in Bukavu has treated thousands of rape victims. Monday, the Toronto-based Stephen Lewis Foundation gave the hospital $300,000 for victims' assistance. This is in addition to earlier funding. Lewis, the former U.N. special envoy for AIDS in Africa, explains the reasons for the grant.
"The level of sexual violence and the brutality of the assaults has resulted in, and perhaps this is inevitable, in spreading the HIV and AIDS virus, so that more and more women are turning up at the Panzi Hospital, the key hospital in Bukavu in the Kivu region, where the terrible sexual violence is taking place. More women are turning up at the Panzi Hospital HIV-positive. And we felt given the circumstance and the way in which the virus is transmitted through rape and sexual violence, we should get involved," he says.
In all, the foundation has given the hospital and the City of Joy homebuilding project about $650,000.
"Homes are being built for the women so that they can recover from the surgery and be secure and protected in the process," he says.
The latest grant will fund treatment for both the physical and psychological trauma. "The physical damage is sometimes so violent that the woman cannot be surgically repaired," Lewis says. "The psychological damage is of course intense, almost incomprehensible in its force. The doctors at the hospital are traumatized by dealing with such excessive wounds to the body," he adds.
The psychological efforts will include resources and personnel, such as counselors, from other, similar projects in Kenya, Zambia, South Africa and Rwanda.
Betty Makoni is an international gender activist and founder of the Girl Child Network. Makoni, a rape survivor herself, talked to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about the brutal rapes in the eastern DRC.
"Stories like soldiers inserting sticks into the genital organs of women, tearing all their wombs and tearing all their cervix area. This is brutality at its worst. And I've picked stories about women who are raped in front of their grandchildren, in front of their sons, in front of their daughters.... And also...of women forced to be raped by their own relatives. And you can imagine your uncle forced to rape you as punishment. And I think the idea is to destroy the womb that brings their opponents in the country in(to) the world," she says.
Makoni says it's incomprehensible. "It's beyond what the ordinary mind and brain can take anymore."
Asked what happens to the rape victims who survive, she says, "This is their dignity. Your genital organ is something very, very secret. You know, private and confidential. And you imagine if it is displayed to your children, if it is displayed to other men, who are just roaming around, it strips you of your dignity.... So, I can describe the women of Congo to be very traumatized. And as you rightly know, there is no medicine for psychological trauma in the world," she says.
The gender activist says the plight of the Congolese women is an issue that has been "swept under the carpet. The world has been silent about it." Makoni estimates that as many as 15,000 women have been treated for rape and sexual assault at the Panzi Hospital since 1999.
She says bringing those responsible to just can actually help in the healing process. "I am of the feeling that when justice is done, when the women feel that the people who have committed the crimes are punished... as a rape survivor myself I feel that when justice is done you're almost one-third psychologically healed," she says.
But not all of those who've committed such atrocities would be prosecuted. Nevertheless, she says, "In any crime of that magnitude, there is a ring leader. By bringing one man to book, we are bringing the rest of them to book. And you know, when you start healing from rape, it's a process. It's not an event." Makoni says that it takes many years for a woman to heal from the trauma of rape.
Makoni was raped when she was six years old in Zimbabwe, along with 10 other young girls. It led her in later life to found the Girl Child Network in 1999 to help and empower school age girls. She says that she still has outburst of anger when she hears the stories of rape in the DRC.