Chantal is the Program Coordinator for Women and Children with Héritiers de la Justice in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She lives in the eastern Congo along the shores of Lake Kivu. The DRC is known as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Chantal helps women who have survived the extreme sexual violence far too common in the Eastern Congo—and works towards ending the impunity that enables it.
Chantal recently crossed Canada as part of KAIROS Canada’s Living Courage women’s tour. She shared stories of the intense bravery of women in the DRC. In the midst of the violence of war, mass rape as a weapon of war, and hunger, these Congolese sisters have come together to shape the future of the country. They are working to pass laws against sexual violence, and to ensure that women’s participation in government is entrenched in the new constitution.
Chantal often talks about the negative “power of silence”—and the need to support women in opening up about their experiences. Women often come to her after a rape experience. The survivor describes the violence, both as a way of documenting it for the courts, and as a way of breaking the shame and silence.
Sometimes the family of the rapist will try to buy the silence of the survivor’s family. Héritiers de la Justice discourages this in favour of bringing the matter to trial followed by seeking compensation from the perpetrator. This is one step towards a justice system that actually deals with sexual violence and takes the country’s new laws off paper and into the streets and villages.
Between the months of January and November of this year, HJ has documented more than 406 cases of rape perpetrated by a huge range of armed Rwandan and Congolese groups and authorities. The survivors ranged in age from 4 to 85 years.
The context for real change goes beyond women and beyond the DRC. Chantal spoke of the need for men to be involved, noting that “they are not the enemy and they need to be with us, taking responsibility.” She also spoke to her Canadian audience of the impact of Canadian mining operations in the eastern Congo, which take place in the midst of continued armed conflict and sexual violence that is designed in part to help armed groups seize control of the lucrative mineral trade. The act of rape carries with it chilling political and financial goals, and stopping it requires that the world understand this.
“We need to break the silence, seek synergy and build alliances with other organizations, and to do this without fear.” In the offices of Héritiers de la Justice there is a banner that reads, “Society without women is a society without peace and without development.”
We stand in admiration of Chantal—and the women who work everyday to bring sexual violence to and end.