Mr. Chair, I'd like to thank the subcommittee for this opportunity to address you on the issue of sexual violence against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
My name is Jocelyn Kelly. I'm the director of the women in war program at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, an interdisciplinary research group at Harvard University that examines how to bring evidence-based practices into complex crises.
I've seen the transcripts of the other substantive sessions on the Congo and know that the members of the subcommittee are already very knowledgeable about the situation there. It's a rare honour to be invited here today to speak about such an important issue to those who are so clearly committed to this problem.
I've worked in international crises and disaster response since 2004 and have specifically worked in DRC since 2007 as a public health researcher, using both quantitative and qualitative research methods. During my time there I've worked not only with survivors of sexual violence but also with current rebel combatants from a number of groups and with demobilized former soldiers including former child soldiers. This has provided me an unusual opportunity to look at the complex issues in DRC from many angles.
The work of the women in war program has been possible because of the close partnerships we have with local organizations that undertake heroic work, including the Panzi Hospital, the Centre d'assistance médico-psychosociale, known as CAMPS, and the Eastern Congo Initiative, to name but a few.
Our program is committed to looking at gendered issues in areas of political instability. We try to conduct action-based research with local partners in an effort to inform programming and policy using the voices and recommendations of the true experts in a situation: those who are themselves affected.
In DRC our most recent projects have focused on a number of topics, including the stigma that survivors of sexual violence face in their families and communities after rape, the issues faced by children born as a result of sexual violence, the demobilization and reintegration of former child soldiers, and human rights assessments with a particular focus on women's rights in artisanal mining towns. I know we cannot even begin to cover all of the results from all of these projects. Instead, I'd like to try to cover two broad points in this presentation. I'll try to synthesize our more detailed research results into a set of more general observations about the situation in DRC, especially as it relates to women's issues. Next, I'll propose a set of recommendations, again, supported by those affected by these issues, in the hope that these will help the committee in its work.
We're here to discuss sexual violence against women, used systematically as a weapon of war in DRC. To do this, I'd like to start with one of my favourite quotes from feminist Gloria Steinem. At a presentation of hers I attended a few years ago, she said that when we discuss women's issues, we call it culture, and when we discuss men's issues we call it economics. The committee has already recognized what many people still struggle to realize, that sexual violence in conflict anywhere is not just a women's issue and it's not just a cultural issue, but a political issue and a human rights issue, and it's at the core of the peace and security agenda.
The DRC conflict can be intimidating to understand. People can get lost in an alphabet soup of factions of armed groups and subgroups and shifting political and military loyalties. It's a complicated situation, but there are lessons that have emerged through our work and the work of many dedicated researchers. First, and perhaps very obviously, wounds resulting from sexual and gender-based violence are multi-dimensional in scope. This pervasive and often public violence not only affects the individual survivor but also shatters family and community relationships. The stigmatization and isolation of survivors from their social networks, the witnessing of public sexual violence by members of a survivor's family and community, and the changes in social norms because of displacement are all destabilizing effects of sexual violence on communities.
A complicated problem requires a holistic approach. It is important to provide integrated medical, mental health, and economic support services. Holistic care, either through referral mechanisms or through integrating different services in the same organization, is required in order to address this issue.
Second, people focus on the problems that women in the Congo face, but interestingly enough many of the women we speak to are most concerned about their children and their families. We must take an integrated family-based approach to addressing this problem. Children are especially reliant on a myriad of critical social structures—family, religious communities, education, and health systems—in order to ensure their health and development, but these are the very systems that have been undermined or destroyed as a result of the pervasive insecurity in the DRC.
Children are affected both directly and indirectly by sexual violence. Services must take a family-centred approach to help women address not only their personal needs resulting from rape, but also the needs of their families, including children as well.
The Congolese government has made a commitment to ensure free education for children up to primary school. It's a promise that has currently been unmet. You would be surprised by the number of women who have suffered life-threatening injuries and have had everything they owned taken away from them, and when asked what they would like to see change in the future, say that the one thing they want is education for their children.
Another consequence of the conflict is the destabilization of economic systems. We must provide context appropriate income-generating solutions for women and men. We must encourage community-led implementation of farming, trade cooperatives, and micro-lending. And we must provide security for the women who are ready to work, to undertake the activities they choose.
Our work with the World Bank in artisanal mining towns in the DRC illustrates the importance of this issue. Women often go to mining towns to seek the economic opportunity that is all too rare in Congo. There they face horrific outcomes, and are often marginalized into undertaking sex work instead of fulfilling their right to undertake fair-paying work in mining towns.
There is a need to support local mining activities in a sustainable way to harness the economic promise in these areas. To do so, we must address corruption and fraud in the mining sector, provide technical assistance for the modernization of artisanal mining, engage in education on Congolese law and the mining code, and promote grassroots, inclusive economic cooperatives.
Finally, violence is cyclical. I've interviewed more than a hundred soldiers from a number of rebel groups during my time in Congo. We think of combatants as perpetrators of violence who commit monstrous acts that most of us find impossible to understand. However, many of these soldiers were forced to join armed groups through kidnapping or intense pressure, and they often joined at very young ages. Many soldiers joined with the idea of fighting against the atrocities committed against themselves and their families, but after joining, these men and women found themselves perpetrating the same crimes they had themselves suffered.
We see a recurring pattern to the insecurity in the DRC. Many of the rebel soldiers we have talked to have gone through a revolving door of demobilization multiple times. When I was in the DRC last summer, our research was interrupted when were interviewing former child soldiers who were actually leaving our research project to rejoin the fighting against M23.
Since the conflict is now two decades long, there is an entire generation of young people who have never experienced peace. Funding for the demobilization of rebel groups and integration of soldiers into their communities must be a part of other services, and requires long-term commitments from governments and donors.
Combatants need ongoing psychosocial services in addition to simply giving up their guns. I heard a psychologist talk about this as “mental disarmament”. Undertaking this work will help ensure that military mindsets and predation of civilians does not occur after ostensible peace processes are undertaken.
Despite the complexity of the situation in the DRC, there are things we can be sure of: peace must be a foundation for longer-term sustainable improvements in the situation in Congo. Moreover, women's issues are political issues. Sexual violence and other human rights violations undermine peace and security in Congo. Sexual violence in conflict is not inevitable. I'll say it again because it's something that many of us still struggle to understand. We think of rape as old as war itself, yet many remarkable public health and political science researchers are undertaking groundbreaking work to show that sexual violence in conflict is not inevitable. Since it is not inevitable, we are charged to address this issue and to prevent it.
This can be done through attainable but difficult measures, including changing people's attitudes to women's rights, ending the impunity of military and civilian perpetrators, undertaking security sector reform with the national military, providing fair and equal employment and educational opportunities for women and men, and pursuing lasting peace and stability in Congo.
I thank you, Mr. Chairman, and the entire committee, for your continued dedication to this important issue.