On Wednesday 21 July, CAFOD launched 50 years 50 faces, an exhibition of images and words from interviews with 50 Congolese women who have suffered sexual violence at the hands of rebel militia.
Many were held captive for weeks or even years, violently abused on a daily basis. Almost all returned to stigmatisation and rejection by their families and community. The exhibition puts a human face the ongoing tragedy.
I felt privileged to be a part of it and photographed the event myself. Thanks go to Lord Alton of Liverpool, Mike Thompson, BBC and Judith Wanga for attending and speaking on the night.
Last year 9,000 women and girls were raped in the eastern region of the Kivus in the Democratic Republic of Congo. To highlight this ongoing crisis, CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development) launched a 12-month photographic exhibition on July 21, to coincide with the nation’s 50th anniversary year of independence.
Although the anniversary is a milestone, DRC is still a country devastated by past and present conflict. And women are one of the most vulnerable groups, targeted by militia because the trauma and stigma rape creates can destabilise communities and, over time, the whole population.
Putting a face to the issue
This exhibition of images and words from interviews with 50 Congolese women who have suffered sexual violence puts a human face to the ongoing tragedy. Many were held captive by rebel militia for weeks or even years, violently abused on a daily basis. Almost all returned to stigmatisation and rejection by their families and community.
Therese Mema Mapenzi, Sexual Violence Programme Leader for CAFOD’s DRC partner the Justice and Peace Commission says: ‘It is very important that the voices of women affected by sexual violence are heard. Rape has become a weapon of war and we must not let it be forgotten because it has become commonplace. Every assault against a woman or girl is a terrifying and devastating experience, especially when it is often followed by stigmatisation by family and friends’.
The Listening Rooms
The women featured in the exhibition are part of CAFOD’s Listening Rooms project, which offers medical referral and counselling to those who have suffered sexual violence. Their stories are frequently difficult to listen to, but it’s vital they’re heard.
Therese says, ‘the Listening Rooms offer a safe place for women to talk and make friends with other women who have been raped. When many have been disowned by their families and communities after their attacks, the Listening Room becomes their family and offers a crucial life-line in very hard times.’
‘The world thinks it knows – but it doesn’t know’
Feza M’Nyampunda from Mwanda, Bukavu in eastern DRC gave her story for the exhibition. She is 48 years old and was raped by rebel troops in front of her husband at their home. She said, ‘Take our stories and tell everyone what is happening here. The world thinks it knows – but it doesn’t know. This isn’t a story of the war, this is our lives now. If the world is bored with the story then they have forgotten how to be human.’
The UK government is currently the largest bilateral donor to the DRC, with a commitment of £130m for 2010. CAFOD commends the UK’s support but urges them to work harder towards the protection of women and girls.