When Beatrice was raped, by a gang of soldiers who sauntered by her home and saw her alone, she thought it was the end of world. She could not have imagined then that rape was only the start of a terrible downward spiral that would often seem to have no end.
“My husband came and said what happened? You can’t be telling me the truth. He no longer wanted to be with me and he left. I was alone with five children.”
Beatrice, not her real name, now has a sixth child, the result of the rape. The infant is strapped to her back, and sleeps while she sobs at the memories that stalk her, in a dark room in a hospital in Goma, in the violent south-eastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“My husband’s parents totally rejected my child. The village did. Everyone who sees me, curses me. They say I am a soldier’s mistress.”
Beatrice’s ever deepening tragedy is also a national nightmare. By the United Nations’ very conservative estimate, 200,000 women have been through a similar ordeal since 1998.
On a trip to Goma, William Hague, the British foreign secretary, launched the UK’s plan to help tackle the crisis, announcing £180m in new funding for the DRC health system, some of which will go to training medical staff to give proper care for rape victims.
Jonathan Lusi, a surgeon at the Goma hospital, both tends to the very serious injuries which accompany rape, and oversees his patients’ psychological recovery, training to give them independent livelihoods.
“We are in a war. It’s a legal vacuum. There is no government, no authority and no values. Rape is a warning sign something has gone very wrong.”
The DRC, after decades of conflict and turmoil is just one of the world’s battlefields where the routine sexual abuse of women and girls is a weapon of war. No one has any idea how many have been raped in Syria, for example. It is hard enough to count the bodies. It is a crime against humanity that often goes unmentioned because of the squeamishness of public officials and the many challenges to collecting evidence. Corpses are easier to count than rapes, while the victims of rape live in societies that enforce silence.
The tens of thousands of rapes during the Bosnian war, for example, have only led to 30 convictions.
The British government will attempt to break the official silence over the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war by taking the unusual step of using its presidency of the G8 this year to put it at the heart of the agenda of the rich nations’ club that has in recent years been preoccupied with economic woes.
“It’s time for the governments of the world to do something about this,” said Hague in an interview with the Guardian during a visit to Goma. “I will argue it has been taboo or ignored and taken for granted for too long … We can move the dial on something like this. We are big enough in the world to do something about this.”
As well as the money pledged to support the DRC health system, Hague also announced £850,000 in support for an advocacy group called Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice to help it document cases in eastern DRC and push the international criminal court (ICC) to take heed of sexual crimes in its deliberations. Other funding will go to Physicians for Human Rights, another NGO, for evidence collection equipment such as locked evidence cabinets for eventual prosecutions.
Such prosecutions are not necessarily a distant aspiration. One of the leaders of the rebel M23 militia, Bosco Ntaganda, handed himself in at the US embassy in Kigali, the capital of neighbouring Rwanda, last week and was flown to face war crimes charges at the ICC in the Netherlands, where he denied charges including murder, rape, pillaging and using child soldiers in his first appearance on Tuesday.
Hague was accompanied in Goma by Angelina Jolie, with whom he has forged an unorthodox partnership to campaign on the issue. He credits Jolie’s film last year about Bosnian rape camps, In the Land of Blood and Honey, with helping to inspire the British initiative.
“The hope and the dream is that next time this happens, it is known that if you abuse women, if you rape the women, you will be accountable for your actions,” Jolie told the Guardian. “This will be a crime of war and you won’t just get away with it.”
Hague and Jolie visited a camp on the shores on Lake Kivu which has sprung up as a result of an upsurge in fighting when the M23 advanced into Goma last November.
Set against a breathtaking backdrop of lake and volcanoes, the camp of 10,000 people is a huddle of meagre straw shelters half covered with tarpaulin.
The women here are forced to venture out of the camp to collect firewood or water. Both make them vulnerable to rape and many of the women and girls have been assaulted. All the International Rescue Committee, which runs the camp, can offer to mitigate the threat are “dignity kits” that contain efficient stoves that require less firewood and extra clothes so the women have to look for washing water less often.
“It’s a sad fact that when you ask how to reduce sexual violence the answer is to help them not have to go out,” Jolie said.
On the way out of the camp a woman who had earlier given Hague and Jolie a reserved factual account of her experiences ran up to them on a last minute impulse: “Please help us. We are being raped like animals.” Hague said: “The memory of meeting her will always stay with me.”