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Gender, War/Conflict, Violence Against Women
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Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa
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Rape, Congo, Africa, Sexual Violence, Rwanda
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Thousands of women are raped in war zones every year. This project documents the lives of victims in Bukavu, Congo.
Melanie Blanding

2006 — student winner

Thousands of women are raped in war zones every year. I plan to document the lives of victims in Bukavu, Congo.

Political conflict carried over from Kigali, Rwanda into the Bukavu region led to thousands of troops stationed there since 1998: United Nations, Rwandan and Congolese. Military governments fight over gold, diamonds and other natural resources.

Violence against women skyrocketed with the influx of troops. Dr. Denis Mukwege directs the Red Cross supported Panzi Rape Clinic just outside Bukavu. He estimated in August 2005 that he would treat 4,000 rape victims from the immediate area by the end of the year — up from 3,600 the year before.

I spent one week at a rape seminar in Bukavu this past August. I interviewed women and established a relationship at the rape clinic. The Congolese women deserve to have their story told. If I secure grant money, I plan to return to Bukavu for summer 2006 to continue documenting these women.

"There are 250 beds [at the clinic]," Mukwege said. "They are always full. Women wait four weeks to see a doctor."

Women are most often raped in "the bush" while performing daily chores such as farming or collecting wood and water.

"I was taken in the bush," Alphonsine told other women at the rape seminar. "Now I have AIDS." Virtually every victim suffers from incontinence and must receive surgery to repair obliterated genitals to control bowel movements again.

Women are sometimes raped in front of their family or dragged to a central location in the community to be raped in front of their friends and neighbors. Sometimes soldiers force boys to rape their mother, grandmother, or sister.

Alphonsine’s husband kicked her out of their home and abandoned her and their children after she was raped in front of him.

"It is shameful. I have been ruined and he does not want me. My children are ruined. I have no way to earn money and no food to feed them. I have no place to live." It was a Rwandan soldier that raped Alphonsine, but Congolese and UN soldiers are raping too.

It doesn’t matter how old a girl is, the soldiers will rape her. A woman stood with Julie, her 3-year-old granddaughter. She said Julie was gang raped; a soldier put his gun in her vagina and fired it. Attractive young women are kidnapped and kept as sex slaves for months at a time. Most die from repeated gang rape and other physical violations.

If they become pregnant, the lucky ones are let go. Multiple reports tell of women whose babies were cut from their uterus and left to die.

"Many men came for me. Sometimes 5, 10, 20 in one day," a 16-year-old shared. "Then, they took the knife of their gun and put it in my vagina. In one excruciating circumstance a woman tells that after being gang raped by Rwandan soldiers, they forced her to butcher and cook her child.

There is no excuse for women to be destroyed like this, physically, emotionally and mentally. I may not be able to do anything to stop the Rwandan or Congolese soldiers, but the United Nations must be held accountable for the actions of its soldiers. I can communicate visually what is happening to women in war zones.

For 16 days in 2005, from Nov. 25 through Dec. 10, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights sponsored a conference in Geneva that specifically addressed "the connections between women's human rights, violence against women and women's health, and the detrimental consequences violence against women has on the well-being of the world as a whole."

Through contacts previously established, I have secured a volunteer translator, as well as room and board at no cost for three months in the region. A local pastor (name withheld for security) oversees a church made up mostly of raped, ostracized women and their children. Their congregation has invited me to document these women"s lives as they try to survive after the rape — many have no housing or food. Some prostitute themselves for a few dollars, a bed or a handful of food. Sometimes an individual will take pity on a woman and just let her sleep, without sharing her bed. I have permission to document the surgery and recovery process of women at the Panzi rape clinic. For the cost of a plane ticket, I will be able to document and share the lives of rape victims in east Congo.

Read more
Doctors on Call for Service (DOCS) treat victims of sexual violence in Goma, North Kivu, including this woman who's eye was gauged with a stick. Some women suffered more severe damage than others. DOCS performed surgeries on each of them, but when surgery proved unsuccessful, the organization rented land to house 18 women in Ndosho, a community just outside Goma. Construction is underway in the area for a permanent dwelling place for the women to reside. Melanie Blanding/Alexia Foundation
DOCS (Doctors on Call for Service), of Goma, North Kivu, treat women who have suffered sexual violence during attacks by soldiers and rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Serafina, right, 26, of Kindu, Maniema, bears the scar from a surgery to remove sticks lodged in her uterus by rebels when they attacked her at home. Kindu is not currently accessible by road due to deterioration from neglect since the war started in 1998. DOCS periodically hires a plane to bring women who have suffered sexual violence to their facility in Goma. Melanie Blanding/Alexia Foundation
Tendine's elderly mother, Bilazi, carried her daughter by foot for two weeks to get to Panzi Hospital from Shabunda, some 400-odd kilometers away. Tendine was attacked and raped by Interhamwe rebels. “We want peace,” Tendine said. “People cannot live their lives”. Tendine lived at Panzi for about a year while she received medical treatment. Melanie Blanding/Alexia Foundation
Maria, 22, of Kindu, Maniema, undergoes surgery to repair a fistula at DOCS (Doctors on Call for Service) HEAL Africa clinic in Goma, North Kivu. A fistula is a tear in the vaginal tissue, leaving the patient incontinent. Urine and feces leaks from a woman’s body like a toilet that never stops flushing. The smell is pervasive and women often leave messes left on furniture. Many women are abandoned by their families and avoid social situations that may expose them. Often, the physical damage is so severe that women require three to six surgeries to fully recover. They must wait three months between each surgery. Melanie Blanding/Alexia Foundation
Henriette, 35, and her eight-month-old twins spend each evening at “House Two” – a facility rented by Panzi Hospital to house more than 100 other women in the VVS program. The hospital rents two such houses to accommodate the average 250 women in the program at any given time. Melanie Blanding/Alexia Foundation
Margarita, of Burundi, makes the two-hour ride from a clinic in Kamanyola, South Kivu, in a Panzi Hospital Ambulance. Margarita was attacked by soldiers and will receive treatment for her injuries through the hospital’s VVS program. Panzi Hospital sends an ambulance to Kamanyola, a village south of Bukavu, periodically to pick up VVS patients and bring them to Panzi for treatment. Melanie Blanding/Alexia Foundation
Women are transferred to the post operation ward to recover from fistula surgery at Panzi Hospital. Hours after coming out of surgery, one young woman whimpered and shivered under her light blanket until pain medication took effect and allowed her to sleep. Melanie Blanding/Alexia Foundation
After Interhamwe rebels attacked her village killing her father, Eugenie, 18, of Kamituga, experienced psychological disorientation. Later, Eugenie's baby died during labor and delivery, and she was left with a prolapsed uterus and fistula. By the time she arrived at Panzi Hospital, Eugenie needed 12 blood transfusions before doctors were able to perform surgery. Melanie Blanding/Alexia Foundation
A friend braids Madeleine’s hair while she cares for another woman’s child one morning at Panzi Hospital. Most women suffer severe psychological trauma after the attacks. Madeleine spent time cradling other women’s babies every day before her surgery, which may have been a response to the loss of her only child while she was captive in a rebel village. Melanie Blanding/Alexia Foundation
July 7, 2006 marked the second of four days in a row that the Panzi community was without water, due to a lack of rain during the dry season. Women from Panzi Hospital's VVS program scouted for water near the Rwandan border. Locals said that sometimes the city is left for weeks without water during the dry season. Women are especially susceptible to attack by rebels while they perform daily chores such as carrying water, collecting firewood or working in the agriculture fields. Melanie Blanding/Alexia Foundation