In the conflict-ridden east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where dozens of armed groups vie for control of the impoverished nation’s mineral riches, one of the fiercest enemies of the warlords is not clad in military fatigues or clutching a Kalashnikov.
Justine Masika Bihamba, or Mama Justine as many know her, wears a brightly coloured floral skirt and a steely expression. And although she laughs freely and smiles warmly, her demeanour demands respect and her carefully chosen, calmly conveyed words, attention.
For Bihamba is the founder of the Women’s Synergy for Victims of Sexual Violence (SFVS), an organisation that seeks to combat the widespread, brutal and largely unpunished use of sexual violence during conflict.
And the Goma-based lawyer is well placed for such a mission. For as long as the war has raged here, combatants from all sides have used rape as a weapon in it. There are entire villages where every female inhabitant – infant, adult and elderly – has been raped, whether by government soldiers or rebels, and often with extreme violence and by multiple perpetrators.
Bihamba has been denouncing these atrocities for years, but encounters a recurring problem in her bid to deliver justice.
“Sexual violence is a criminal offence and here the peace courts do not have the power to prosecute these crimes,” she explains. “The violations are also used in Congo as a crime of war and [as a crime] against humanity. What I am asking is that we can have a justice system worthy of its name.”
Her organisation serves a dual purpose: to bring justice to individual victims of sexual violence by prosecuting the perpetrators and to secure a role for these women in the reimagining of their country as one with no place for either rape or war.
“Our mission is to ensure that these women can at last abandon their passive role and become active players in the judicial proceedings against violators, and also in the peace negotiations in the country,” she says.
This position, and the determination with which she pursues it, has earned her many enemies in a country where international players, neighbouring countries and homegrown aggressors have long looted its earth of coltan, gold, diamonds and cassiterite, and its people of their lives and dignity.
And her leading role in the investigation into violations committed by the army during its recent offensive against M-23 rebels in the city of Minova, where, according to the UN, more than 100 women were raped in 10 days, has made her an even greater target.
“My family has been threatened and so have I,” she explains from her small office in an austere building surrounded by trees. “But something must be done to resolve this problem; we cannot allow fear to win out ….”
For the 49-year-old, who has assisted more than 1,800 victims of sexual violence, this means dividing her time between her meticulously organised office and a refugee camp in Bulengo.
Among the 40,000 residents of the camp are many victims of rape. These women, she explains over a breakfast of chocolate waffles at her desk, “suffer a double violence: on the one hand, the trauma they have experienced, on the other, the stigma attached to them by their husbands and families”.
“They remain totally alone,” she reflects.
Her work is based on three basic pillars: the provision of medical, emotional and psychological aid.
After the first wounds have been healed, the process of confronting their attacker and seeing them punished can begin. But, Bihamba explains, there are also practical considerations.
“Moral compensation is important, but so is economic compensation, because these women have been abandoned by their families. They are isolated and do not have the resources to support their children.”
In the camp, Bihamba helps the women to learn a trade, often making handicrafts and wicker baskets. And this sometimes involves a form of physical rehabilitation, as it is common for women to wrap their arms tightly around their bodies in an attempt to protect themselves from rape. As a result, their arms and hands are often badly damaged, bruised and broken during an attack. Mastering such intricate handicrafts forces them to regain full use of their battered limbs.
A global war, a private battle
But it was a natural disaster, rather than conflict, that first alerted Bihamba to the impact of sexual violence upon women.
It was 2002 and a volcano had erupted in Goma, destroying much of the city and displacing thousands of people. In the aftermath, the lawyer encountered an elderly woman who had been raped but could not afford the medical treatment she desperately needed.
“That is when things changed,” she remembers. “Women in this country do not even have the resources needed to survive. They need a network of support that assists them in this recovery process, to bring them back to life. That is why I created this organisation.”
In the years since, she has delivered a report to Human Rights Watch on the plight of women in the region, stood before the military in the nation’s parliament to denounce the crimes committed by those within their ranks and travelled around the world, spreading her message that sexual violence afflicts women everywhere, in times of war and peace.
And there have been occasions when the scourge she fights has struck painfully close to home. One day, in 2007, she returned home from work to find that a group of soldiers had attacked her two daughters, raping one of them.
She speaks of that day with calmness, explaining that the attackers fled and were never caught or prosecuted. And, far from making her doubt her work, it further reaffirmed her commitment to the cause of her countrywomen.
“The best way to protect … [my daughters] is to continue fighting the criminals,” she says. “If we have a decent justice system, these violators will be punished. It is the only relief for the victims.”
Rape or death?
Rachel was one such victim. She recalls the date she was raped as though it were her name – June 29, 2010.
“We ran into a group of military officers near Rwanda,” she says of the day she went into the forest with some neighbours in search of wood. “They asked us if we preferred rape or death.”
“I was totally paralysed,” she continues, with Bihamba by her side. “It was as if I were outside of my body, as though it were happening to someone else. We told them to do what they wanted. They chose rape.”
Initially, Rachel’s husband rejected her. He only came around three years later, after much work from Bihamba and her team, who also seek to educate the family members of victims.
“Our work is also to educate people so that they understand that these women have done nothing wrong, that the attackers are those who deserve punishment, not the women themselves,” Bihamba explains.
“When a woman is raped, her life starts from zero,” Rachel says. “Fortunately for me, Mama Justine was there. I don’t know what would have happened to me without her.”
Today, Rachel is completing her studies and aspires to become an accountant. She says she has forgiven the men who forced her to choose between rape and death and that she no longer feels any anger. “I just want to continue with my life,” she reflects.
And it is that spirit that Bihamba hopes to spread throughout the country.
“The problem for most is that they do not know their rights; they don’t know that they can denounce their attackers and do not believe they deserve a decent life,” she says. “Education is the weapon to change their lives. I work with these women so that they can free themselves.”