In perhaps one of the best publicized cases of femicide in our recent history, rape in DRC is endemic. In a nine month period between January and September 2008, more than 18,000 cases of rape have been reported. If over 2,000 women and girls report being raped per month, how many more never report?
In a prior position with CARE International, I helped organize survivors of rape across Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. I will never forget a young woman named Negie I met in February 2008 in Maniema, an East Central province of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
We had organized a larger meeting with a women’s village group. At the start of the meeting, I asked the women and girls what they felt needed to change and what they would advise global policy makers to do. After the meeting, Negie came up to me and said she’d like to share her thoughts, while the dynamic Congolese program manager translated for us.
Negie told me about how one morning when she went to work in the fields, she was raped by ex- soldier. She became pregnant soon after. However, when she went into labor a few months back, she experienced complications, but her family could not take her to the hospital. The hospital was a 2- day walk away and the routes through the forest were not safe. In the absence of a much- needed caesarean operation, the baby got stuck. As a result of the pushing, Negie developed a vaginal fistula, or a hole in her vagina which results in leaking urine and other fluids. The baby died shortly after Negie gave birth.
With the help of the village- based women’s group, Negie told me that she has gotten counseling and is on a short- list of many other survivors of rape who are waiting for fistula operations at Heal Africa, a hospital in Eastern Congo that is a short one- hour plane ride away. At 18 years old, Negie told me that she considers herself very lucky to be alive, to be able to have her travel and operation paid over, even though her child never made it. She mentions how many of her friends and neighbors have died, not only from rape in DRC, but almost as frequently, from child birth.
Negie explained that the reason she wanted to share her story with me is that she thinks that government and other leaders need to do more to ensure that more women like her can get medical care for issues resulting from rape and unsafe childbirth.
In the last three months, two UN resolutions have been passed that directly relate to Negie’s life and her aspirations regarding what policy makers should do.
On September 30th, Hillary Clinton helped secure U.N. Security Resolution 1888, which highlights the need to end sexual violence against women in conflict-affected countries.
On June 17th, the Human Rights Council passed a resolution on maternal mortality, calling on governments to do more to ensure safe childbirth for women and girls around the globe. While both of these UN resolutions are positive outcomes, their success largely depends on how effectively civil society groups can use them to hold their governments accountable.
You might ask, as I do, what if anything has changed as a result of these resolutions?
Well, in India, the country that with a rate of an estimated 450 deaths per 100,000 live births has the dubious honor of having the highest number of maternal deaths in the world, there is an encouraging sign. Increasingly, there is trend to try to litigate maternal morbidity. In August of this year, the Human Rights Law Network in India filed the first known public interest case that deals with pregnancy-related injury to be filed in a state high court, as cited by the Center for Reproductive Rights.
While the outcomes of this case are still pending, it offers the potential for national courts to legally hold the health system accountable for women’s human rights. This is something that Negie might find encouraging.
Khushbu Srivastava is the Program Officer for Asia at the International Women’s Health Coalition. Read her bio here.