Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Rape Victims’ Words Help Jolt Congo Into Change

By Jeffrey Gettleman

BUKAVU, Congo — Honorata Kizende looked out at the audience and began with a simple, declarative sentence.

“There was no dinner,” she said.

“It was me who was dinner. Me, because they kicked me roughly to the ground, and they ripped off all my clothes, and between the two of them, they held my feet. One took my left foot, one took my right, and the same with my arms, and between the two of them they proceeded to rape me. Then all five of them raped me.”

The audience, which had been called together by local and international aid groups and included everyone from high-ranking politicians to street kids with no shoes, stared at her in disbelief.

Congo, it seems, is finally facing its horrific rape problem, which United Nations officials have called the worst sexual violence in the world. Tens of thousands of women, possibly hundreds of thousands, have been raped in the past few years in this hilly, incongruously beautiful land. Many of these rapes have been marked by a level of brutality that is shocking even by the twisted standards of a place riven by civil war and haunted by warlords and drug-crazed child soldiers.

After years of denial and shame, the silence is being broken. Because of stepped-up efforts in the past nine months by international organizations and the Congolese government, rapists are no longer able to count on a culture of impunity. Of course, countless men still get away with assaulting women. But more and more are getting caught, prosecuted and put behind bars.

European aid agencies are spending tens of millions of dollars building new courthouses and prisons across eastern Congo, in part to punish rapists. Mobile courts are holding rape trials in villages deep in the forest that have not seen a black-robed magistrate since the Belgians ruled the country decades ago.

The American Bar Association opened a legal clinic in January specifically to help rape victims bring their cases to court. So far the work has resulted in eight convictions. Here in Bukavu, one of the biggest cities in the country, a special unit of Congolese police officers has filed 103 rape cases since the beginning of this year, more than any year in recent memory.

In Bunia, a town farther north, rape prosecutions are up 600 percent compared with five years ago. Congolese investigators have even been flown to Europe to learn “CSI”-style forensic techniques. The police have arrested some of the most violent offenders, often young militiamen, most likely psychologically traumatized themselves, who have thrust sticks, rocks, knives and assault rifles inside women.

“We’re starting to see results,” said Pernille Ironside, a United Nations official in eastern Congo.

The number of those arrested is still tiny compared with that of the perpetrators on the loose, and often the worst offenders are not caught because they are marauding bandits who attack villages in the night, victimize women and then melt back into the forest.

This is all happening in a society where women tend to be beaten down anyway. Women in Congo do most of the work —at home, in the fields and in the market, where they carry enormous loads of bananas on their bent backs — and yet they are often powerless. Many women who are raped are told to keep quiet. Often, it is a shame for the entire family, and many rape victims have been kicked out of their villages and turned into beggars.

Grass-roots groups are trying to change this culture, and they have started by encouraging women who have been raped to speak out in open forums, like a courtroom full of spectators, just with no accused.

At the event in Bukavu in mid-September, Ms. Kizende’s story of being abducted by an armed group, then putting her life back together after months as a sex slave, drew tears — and cheers. It seems that the taboo against talking about rape is beginning to lift. Many women in the audience wore T-shirts that read in Kiswahili: “I refuse to be raped. What about you?”

Activists are fanning out to villages on foot and by bicycle to deliver a simple but often novel message: rape is wrong. Men’s groups are even being formed.

But these improvements are simply the first, tentative steps of progress in a very troubled country.

United Nations officials said the number of rapes had appeared to be decreasing over the past year. But the recent surge of fighting between the Congolese government and rebel groups, and all the violence and predation that goes with it, is jeopardizing those gains.

“It’s safer today than it was,” said Euphrasie Mirindi, a woman who was raped in 2006. “But it’s still not safe.”

Poverty, chaos, disease and war. These are the constants of eastern Congo. Many people believe that the rape problem will not be solved until the area tastes peace. But that might not be anytime soon.

Laurent Nkunda, a well-armed Tutsi warlord, or a savior of his people, depending on whom you ask, recently threatened to wage war across the country. Clashes between his troops, many of them child soldiers, and government forces have driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in the past few months. His forces, along with those from the dozens of other rebel groups hiding out in the hills, are thought to be mainly responsible for the epidemic of brutal rapes.

United Nations officials say the most sadistic rapes are committed by depraved killers who participated in Rwanda’s genocide in 1994 and then escaped into Congo. These attacks have left thousands of women with their insides destroyed. But the Congolese National Army, a ragtag undisciplined force of teenage troops who sport wrap-around shades and rusty rifles, has also been blamed. The government has been slow to punish its own, but Congolese generals recently announced they would set up new military tribunals to prosecute soldiers accused of rape.

No one — doctors, aid workers, Congolese and Western researchers — can explain exactly why Congo’s rape problem is the worst in the world. The attacks continue despite the presence of the largest United Nations peacekeeping force, with more than 17,000 troops. Impunity is thought to be a big factor, which is why there is now so much effort on bolstering Congo’s creaky and often corrupt justice system. The sheer number of armed groups spread over thousands of miles of thickly forested territory, fighting over Congo’s rich mineral spoils, also makes it incredibly difficult to protect civilians. The ceaseless instability has held the whole eastern swath of the country hostage.

In Bukavu, everywhere you look, something is broken: a railing, a window, a pickup cruising around with no fenders, a woman trudging along the road with no eyes.

The Congolese government admits it is at a loss, especially in keeping women safe.

“Every day, women are raped,” said Louis Leonce Muderhwa, the governor of South Kivu Province. “This isn’t peace.”

Activists from overseas have been pouring in. Few are more passionate than Eve Ensler, the American playwright who wrote “The Vagina Monologues,” which has been performed in more than 100 countries. She came to Congo last month to work with rape victims.

“I have spent the past 10 years of my life in the rape mines of the world,” she said. “But I have never seen anything like this.”

She calls it “femicide,” a systematic campaign to destroy women.

Ms. Ensler is helping open a center in Bukavu called the City of Joy, which will provide counseling to rape victims and teach leadership skills and self-defense. Her hope is to build an army of rape survivors who will push with an urgency — that has so far been absent — for a solution to end Congo’s ceaseless wars.

The City of Joy is rising behind Panzi Hospital, where the worst of the worst rape cases are treated. But even this refuge has come under attack. Last month, an irate mob stormed the hospital. The mob demanded that the doctors give them the body of a thief, so it could be burned. When the doctors refused, several angry young men beat up nurses and smashed windows. But it was not clear if the body was the only thing that had set them off.

“They don’t like our work,” said Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist. “Maybe what we’re doing is disturbing people.”

The stories of these rapes are clearly disturbing. But that is the point, to shake people up and grab their attention.

“The details are the scariest part,” Ms. Ensler said.

At the event last month, many people in the audience covered their mouths as they listened. Some could not bear it and burst out of the room crying.

One speaker, Claudine Mwabachizi, told how she was kidnapped by bandits in the forest, strapped to a tree and repeatedly gang-raped. The bandits did unspeakable things, she said, like disemboweling a pregnant woman right in front of her. “A lot of us keep these secrets to ourselves,” she said.

She was going public, she said, “to free my sisters.”

But Congo, if anything, is a land of contrasts. The soil here is rich, but the people are starving. The minerals are limitless, but the government is broke.

After the speaking-out event was over, Ms. Mwabachizi said she felt exhausted.

But, she added, “I feel strong.”

She was given a pink shawl with a message printed on it.

“I have survived,” it read. “I can do anything.”

Dame Helen Mirren claims female jurors reckon rape victims ‘ask for it’

By Jack Grimston

She has already caused a stir by disclosing that she was date-raped and did not report it to the police. Now Dame Helen Mirren has suggested that female jealousy may make women jurors less likely to sympathise with a rape victim.

The Oscar-winning actress says lawyers defending men accused of rape prefer having a female-dominated jury because “women go against women”.

Her comments, in an interview in today’s Sunday Times Magazine, have surprised campaigners trying to change attitudes to rape and increase the tiny proportion of rape claims that result in a conviction.

Others believe that Mirren, 63, may have touched on an uncomfortable truth.

Discussing examples of competitiveness among women, she says: “In a rape case, the courts — in defence of a man — would select as many women as they could for the jury, because women go against women.

“Whether in a deep-seated animalistic way, going back billions of years, or from a sense of tribal jealousy or just antagonism, I don’t know, but other women on a rape case would say she was asking for it. The only reason I can think of is that they’re sexually jealous.”

Kirsty Brimelow, a barrister who has defended many men accused of rape, said female-dominated juries were often harsher on a woman, particularly if she had been drunk or the man was an acquaintance or former boyfriend.

“I would reassure a defendant who was worried that there was a preponderance of women on the jury,” said Brimelow. “They may take against the woman instead of him.”

Mirren, who won a best actress Oscar in 2007 for her role in The Queen, told GQ she had been date-raped “a couple of times, not with excessive violence.”

She said she had not told the police, partly because it is “a tricky area . . . especially if there is no violence”.

Campaigners have been trying to raise the proportion of rape allegations that end in conviction — just 6.1%, compared with about 25% for assaults.

Polls suggest between a quarter and a third of Britons believe a rape victim is largely responsible for an attack if she is drunk or wearing revealing clothes.

Cutting Hair, While Cutting to the Chase on Clients’ Domestic Abuse

By Leslie Kaufman

Martha Castillo knew her client had a problem because their weekly hair-straightening sessions were always interrupted by phone calls from a boyfriend angrily accusing her of being with another man. Magda Florentino noticed cigarette burns on a woman’s temples when she pulled back her hair for washing — and did not buy the explanation that it had happened accidentally while bartending.

And Candida Vasquez received a hysterical call from a customer soon after she had spent three hours knitting extensions into the woman’s hair. Her boyfriend hated the look, and in a fit of rage he had cut off not only the extensions, but also the rest of her hair.

Ms. Vasquez said she was not surprised by the call. Troubled clients tell her their personal stories all the time. “They are so tormented, they just come in and share,” she said.

The privileged, often therapeutic relationship between hairdressers and clients has long been the subject of magazine articles and movies. A growing movement in New York and across the nation tries to harness that bond to identify and prevent domestic violence, a pervasive problem that victims are often too ashamed to reveal to law enforcement or other public officials.

Ms. Vasquez, Ms. Castillo and Ms. Florentino are all stylists in Manhattan who have been trained (or are being trained) as part of a one-year-old program by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services in beauty salons in the Washington Heights area, where a high number of cases of abuse and neglect in homes have a component of violence that is not necessarily aimed at children. The initiative joins similar efforts that have been sprouting across the nation; perhaps the best known, called Cut It Out and based in Chicago, has trained 40,000 salon professionals in all 50 states to recognize telltale signs of domestic abuse. In the past few months, the Cut It Out program was also adopted by the Empire Education Group, which has 87 cosmetology schools, and endorsed by the American Association of Cosmetology Schools, the trade organization representing another 800 schools.

Nearly 600,000 women and girls were victims of violence by an intimate partner in 2006, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In New York last year, the police received hundreds of domestic disturbance calls every day and recorded about 55,000 crimes connected to domestic violence — everything from stalkings to killings.

Neither the city’s program or the much larger Cut It Out, founded in 2002, tracks how many women they have referred for help, so it is hard to assess the effectiveness. But law enforcement officials in New York and nationally have praised the beauty-shop approach for reaching a population that normally hides from authorities.

Kathy Ryan, chief of the Domestic Violence Unit of the New York Police Department, said that battered women were such a hard population to reach that “preventing even one death should be considered success.”

The police have tried doing outreach to victims by, among other things, setting up domestic violence education tables at community events, only to find that no one wants to be seen near them. But the atmosphere is different in the safety of a beauty salon.

“The salon may be one of the few places women might be without their abuser around,” said Laurie Magid, a former state prosecutor who is acting United States attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. “This program really addresses a need. You don’t have a case unless you have a crime reported in the first place and that is the difficult area of domestic violence.”

While Cut it Out trains stylists offsite, the Washington Heights workshops, conducted in Spanish, take place inside beauty parlors during the hours that clients are served, which not only makes it easier for people to participate, but also enhances the comfort factor.

“The salon is a place where everyone already feels at home,” said Sharon Kagawa of the Administration for Children’s Services, the agency that recruits salons for the program. “So they can be more honest.”

The Washington Heights program started in 2007, when a woman walked into Porto Pelo Unisex salon, just north of the George Washington Bridge, and unashamedly began telling everyone in shouting distance her marital saga.

She told of how her children had been removed from her home by the city because her husband beat them and her, but said she could not leave him because she feared deportation. As she wept, stylists and customers gathered around to offer comfort, but they had little advice on how to get help.

But Ingrid Dominguez, the director of the child welfare agency’s Washington Heights Family Preservation Program, who happened to be getting her hair done at Porto Pelo that day, knew where to get help. She knew all about nearby therapy and community resources, and knew all about violence in the home. She estimated that domestic violence was the root cause of about 95 percent of the hundreds of cases that crossed her desk each year, some as seemingly simple as student absenteeism.

“The child in question would have missed school, but it was to stay home and protect the mother,” Ms. Dominguez said in an interview. “Or they would be getting bad grades, but it was because they were so worried they could not concentrate.”

The episode gave Ms. Dominguez the idea of recruiting salons to help fight domestic abuse. Since then, the city has trained 116 stylists at 19 salons across Washington Heights and Inwood. Most were familiar with the problem; at Tauro Unisex Salon, one of the first beauty shops to sign up, a stylist was killed right out front by a jealous lover in 2004.

The plan is to reach all of the roughly 400 salons in the neighborhood in the next four years. “We love our salons up here,” Ms. Dominguez said. “By our research, we have one on every block on the main avenues.”

The point of the training is not to turn stylists into law enforcement officials, but to teach them how to identify victims and let them know their options.

The message was hammered home at a recent mid-morning training session at Divas Unisex Hair Salon, a 10-chair shop on Dyckman Street in Inwood. Karina Vargas, a social worker, set up a portable projector on a counter between vases of orchids, flashing slides on the red walls as the stylists, all speaking Spanish, snacked on doughnuts and casually offered up abuse stories.

Ms. Florentino worked on a client’s hair as she shared the story of the woman with cigarette burns on her temples. She spoke through a translator, as did all the other stylists. Never pausing from unrolling curlers, then tugging hair out under the hiss of the dryer, she said she had grown impatient and told the woman that if she would not listen to her warnings, she should stop coming there to get her hair done. And the woman stopped coming.

Over the drone of the dryer, Ms. Vargas gently explained that turning the woman away was probably the wrong move. Instead, she suggested patiently offering advice on resources like domestic-violence shelters. “She is the professional in her own relationship,” she said. “Only she knows when to leave.”

Next time, Ms. Florentino said, she would handle it differently.

Suddenly, her client, Aida Sosa, stood up to admire her hair and, in a puff of hairspray, burst out with her own story. “When my children were small, I was verbally abused,” she said. “I had to get out of it in my own time.”

Sonia Nieves, the owner of Sonia’s Beauty Center on 180th Street in Washington Heights, said she had already seen results since the trainers visited in February. The material about domestic violence that child welfare gives her to pass out, including phone numbers for resources like nearby safe houses and counseling, disappears quickly.

She said she has intervened with a client who said her husband punched her in front of their children. After Ms. Nieves gave her the information about available services, the woman called recently to say things were getting better. Ms. Nieves said she was unsure whether the client had left her husband or was working it out at home.

“I will find out when she comes in to get her hair done,” she said.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Uraguay Moves to Allow Abortion

The Uruguayan Senate has voted to decriminalise abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy - a rare step in a Latin American country.

The measure, approved last week by the lower house, passed by 17 votes to 13.

The bill's backers say it will reduce the number of women dying because they have to resort to illegal abortions.

But President Tabare Vazquez, himself a doctor, has said he opposes abortion on medical and ethical grounds, and he is expected to veto the bill.

Under the current law, women who have an abortion and the people who assist them face prison.

Abortion is only allowed in the case of rape or when the life of the woman is in danger.

Moves to decriminalise abortion have provoked fierce debate in Uruguay

The new legislation would allow women to terminate their pregnancies in the first 12 weeks for these reasons but also under certain other circumstances, such as extreme poverty.


However, the measure is unlikely to take effect as President Vazquez has said he will veto the bill.

It would need a three-fifths majority in Congress to override a presidential veto.

The Roman Catholic Church in Uruguay had warned lawmakers voting for the bill that they could face ex-communication.

But the bill's backers said the vote was a "milestone" for women's rights in Uruguay.

"Whether the president vetoes it or not, it's important that Congress has established this right," Margarita Percovich, a senator from the governing party, told Reuters.

Recent opinion polls suggest a majority of Uruguayans favour easing restrictions on abortion.

Most Latin American countries allow abortion only in cases of rape, when the woman's life is in danger or if the foetus is severely deformed.

But both Cuba and Mexico City (though not the rest of Mexico) allow abortions without restriction in the first 12 weeks.