Raising awareness of sexual violence in Congo

November 18, 2015
Naama Haviv ’00, M.A. ’06 (center right) visits the Congolese village of Kavamu for Panzi Foundation USA. (photo courtesy of Panzi Foundation)

In the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, in what has been called the “Rape Capital of the World,” Dr. Denis Mukwege and his team treat as many as 3,000 women and girls each year for injuries due to sexualized violence by rebels, soldiers and civilians.

Dr. Denis Muckwege Dr. Denis Mukwege, the founder and medical director of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo (photo courtesy of Panzi Foundation)


Mukwege, an obstetrician-gynecologist, opened Panzi Hospital in Bukavu in 1999. Since then, he and his staff have cared for more than 30,000 survivors of sexual assault and rape. He has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament, spoken before the United Nations and survived an assassination attempt.

Recently, the Congolese government banned The Man Who Mends Women, the 2015 Belgian film chronicling his work. He is a hero to the Congolese people and to many of the world’s human-rights advocates, including Naama Haviv ’00, M.A. ’06, who holds a master’s degree in comparative genocide from Clark University. She is executive director of Panzi Foundation USA, founded by Mukwege to support victims, raise awareness and advocate for an end to sexualized violence.

Haviv’s work allows her to tap into “that activist bud that I was never able to get rid of and that Clark fostered,” she said in an “Especially for Students” lecture on Nov. 11 at Clark University’s Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. She has traveled with Mukwege to speak with officials at the White House, Congress and the United Nations.

“Rape in Congo is not about sex. It’s about the destruction of a woman’s humanity and about the destruction of an entire community through the bodies of women,” she said. “Women in Congo are central to society. They are the labor force.” By raping women and girls, Haviv explained, armed groups “can rip apart the fabric of a community, they can destroy the ties that bind families and communities together, and if they can do that, they can terrorize, and they can displace, and they can control the territory that those communities live on top of, and on those territories are minerals and other resources.”

The armed groups have emerged as part of Congo’s ongoing conflict since the early 1990s. At least 5.4 million people have been killed, and 45,000 continue to die every month, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

More recently, the country has seen “a plateau of military violence – violence committed by men in uniforms – and an escalation of civilian violence,” Haviv said.

“The social norms in Congo have eroded so much … that rape is becoming normalized,” and “we are seeing … more and more intimate partner violence.” In addition, demobilized soldiers are ganging up on women and girls. The men themselves may have been victims of enforced conscription during childhood. “The line between victim and perpetrator in Congo is blurry,” she said, “and the line between civilian and military perpetrators also is blurry.”

The violence has torn apart a nation that “should be one of the richest countries in the world,” Haviv said. “Congo is brimming with mineral resources, with agricultural resources and with human power like you would never believe. … If this potential was harnessed, Congo could feed not just its own population, but it could be a tremendous export economy and a tremendous power.”

At Panzi Hospital, Mukwege and his staff use a holistic healing approach that incorporates not only physical but psycho-social treatment. Because of social stigmas, most victims of sexual assault cannot return to their families. So the doctor founded an on-site sanctuary, Maison Dorcas, to provide them with transitional housing and long-term care. Women participate in job-skills training, math and literacy classes, counseling and innovative music therapy while their children attend school or daycare.

“What (rapists) have taken away from her is her community,” Haviv said. “Maison Dorcas allows us to rebuild this community for her.”

Haviv last visited Clark in 2011 to speak at a two-day international summit on “Informed Activism: Armed Conflict, Scarce Resources and Congo.” The conference generated much media coverage and led to the university’s pledge to purchase products solely from companies making an effort to avoid “conflict-free” minerals. At the time, Haviv was assistant director of Jewish World Watch, partnering with Panzi as part of relief and development projects in Congo and Sudan.

Her recent lecture in the Cohen-Lasry House’s Rose Library was sponsored by Holocaust and Genocide Studies and by Women’s and Gender Studies.