No crime more brutal
By Ban Ki Moon
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Seldom have I been as shocked and saddened than by what I saw recently in the
eastern Congo. There, I met a young woman - a girl, really, just 18 years old.
She told me this story.
One day, toward the end of last year while working with other women in a field
near her village of Nyamilima, in North Kivu, armed men appeared. They were
soldiers, in uniform, who began shooting. The girl tried to flee but was caught
by four men. Thus she became a victim of that most brutal of crimes. A group of
women found her, near-dead, and took her to a local clinic.
I met her in a hospital in Goma, the provincial capital of the eastern Congo.
As a result of the violence against her, she had developed fistula - a rupture
of the walls of the vagina, bladder and rectum that renders victims incontinent
and prone to infection and disease. It is a traumatic injury of a sort rarely
seen in the developed world, except in association with the most difficult
childbirths. But in Congo, where rape has become a weapon of war, it is almost
Her doctors at the hospital, HEAL Africa, see such cases every day. On the
Saturday that I visited, 10 surgeries for fistula were scheduled. Last year,
the clinic provided medical treatment to roughly 4,800 victims of sexual
violence, nearly half of them children. The numbers are even higher at the
PANZI Hospital in South Kivu, according its director, Denis Mukwege, whom I met
recently in New York.
The young woman I met was among the luckier ones, if that word can be used to
describe such grim circumstances. Surgeons can repair her wounds. But can they
heal her soul? She suffers not only from physical injury. She also bears the
curse of stigma. She has been ostracized from her village and family, all in
the name of a false sense of shame. She faces a very difficult future entirely
Words failed me, hearing of these terrible tragedies. But if it was hard to
express the full dimension of my feelings, and I had no such trouble giving
voice to my anger. I raised the issue, very strongly, with President Joseph
Kabila when we met earlier that morning. I told him that the chief weapon in
combating sexual violence is the political will of a leader.
After my visit to HEAL Africa, I also spoke forcefully to the commander of the
Congolese forces in the eastern Congo, telling him all that I had heard. I said
the same to the governor, the deputy governor, the chief of police and the head
of the provincial parliament, as well as other local authorities. I spoke about
it again the next day, in Kigali, with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whose
army has just completed a joint military operation with Congo against rebel
militias operating in the region.
In short, I spoke about it to everyone I met - and I will keep doing so. Sexual
violence against women is a crime against humanity. It violates everything the
United Nations stands for. Its consequences go beyond the visible and
immediate. Death, injury, medical costs and lost employment are but the tip of
an iceberg. The impact on women and girls, their families, their communities
and their societies in terms of shattered lives and livelihoods is beyond
It is sometimes said that women are weavers and men, too often, are warriors.
Women bear and care for our children. In much of the world they plant the crops
that feed us. They weave the fabric of our societies. Violence against women is
thus an attack on all of us, on the very foundation of civilization.
Far too often these crimes go unpunished. Perpetrators walk free. UN
peacekeepers in the country performed heroically in protecting civilians during
the recent fighting, to the maximum of our capabilities. Of course, they
themselves must be above reproach. We, too, have had cases of violence against
women within our ranks, in Congo and elsewhere. In each instance we held those
responsible to account.
I left Goma encouraged. The situation on the ground is improving. Earlier this
year, one large rebel group agreed to disband and has begun to integrate into
the national army. The government's joint military operation with Rwanda,
completed during my visit, has succeeded in driving another major rebel group
away from civilian centers. Our task is to help consolidate these gains. If the
fighting in eastern Congo stops, or significantly diminishes, the country's
roughly 1.3 million refugees can return home in security and, with UN
assistance, begin to rebuild their lives. Acts of violence such as those
committed against so many women will become less frequent. Perhaps one day they
will end altogether.
This must be our goal. It is fitting that this Sunday, March 8, marks
International Women's Day. It is an occasion to speak out, loudly.
Violence against women cannot be tolerated, in any form, in any circumstance,
by any political leader or any government. The time to change is now. Let our
voices be heard.
Ban Ki Moon is the secretary general of the United Nations.