Seldom have I been as shocked and saddened than by what I saw recently in the eastern Congo. There, I met a young woman - a girl, really, just 18 years old. She told me this story.
One day, toward the end of last year while working with other women in a field near her village of Nyamilima, in North Kivu, armed men appeared. They were soldiers, in uniform, who began shooting. The girl tried to flee but was caught by four men. Thus she became a victim of that most brutal of crimes. A group of women found her, near-dead, and took her to a local clinic.
I met her in a hospital in Goma, the provincial capital of the eastern Congo. As a result of the violence against her, she had developed fistula - a rupture of the walls of the vagina, bladder and rectum that renders victims incontinent and prone to infection and disease. It is a traumatic injury of a sort rarely seen in the developed world, except in association with the most difficult childbirths. But in Congo, where rape has become a weapon of war, it is almost commonplace.
Her doctors at the hospital, HEAL Africa, see such cases every day. On the Saturday that I visited, 10 surgeries for fistula were scheduled. Last year, the clinic provided medical treatment to roughly 4,800 victims of sexual violence, nearly half of them children. The numbers are even higher at the PANZI Hospital in South Kivu, according its director, Denis Mukwege, whom I met recently in New York.
The young woman I met was among the luckier ones, if that word can be used to describe such grim circumstances. Surgeons can repair her wounds. But can they heal her soul? She suffers not only from physical injury. She also bears the curse of stigma. She has been ostracized from her village and family, all in the name of a false sense of shame. She faces a very difficult future entirely alone.
Words failed me, hearing of these terrible tragedies. But if it was hard to express the full dimension of my feelings, and I had no such trouble giving voice to my anger. I raised the issue, very strongly, with President Joseph Kabila when we met earlier that morning. I told him that the chief weapon in combating sexual violence is the political will of a leader.
After my visit to HEAL Africa, I also spoke forcefully to the commander of the Congolese forces in the eastern Congo, telling him all that I had heard. I said the same to the governor, the deputy governor, the chief of police and the head of the provincial parliament, as well as other local authorities. I spoke about it again the next day, in Kigali, with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whose army has just completed a joint military operation with Congo against rebel militias operating in the region.
In short, I spoke about it to everyone I met - and I will keep doing so. Sexual violence against women is a crime against humanity. It violates everything the United Nations stands for. Its consequences go beyond the visible and immediate. Death, injury, medical costs and lost employment are but the tip of an iceberg. The impact on women and girls, their families, their communities and their societies in terms of shattered lives and livelihoods is beyond calculation.
It is sometimes said that women are weavers and men, too often, are warriors. Women bear and care for our children. In much of the world they plant the crops that feed us. They weave the fabric of our societies. Violence against women is thus an attack on all of us, on the very foundation of civilization.
Far too often these crimes go unpunished. Perpetrators walk free. UN peacekeepers in the country performed heroically in protecting civilians during the recent fighting, to the maximum of our capabilities. Of course, they themselves must be above reproach. We, too, have had cases of sexual abuse within our ranks, in Congo and elsewhere. In each instance we held those responsible to account.
I left Goma encouraged. The situation on the ground is improving. Earlier this year, one large rebel group agreed to disband and has begun to integrate into the national army. The government's joint military operation with Rwanda, completed during my visit, has succeeded in driving another major rebel group away from civilian centers. Our task is to help consolidate these gains. If the fighting in eastern Congo stops, or significantly diminishes, the country's roughly 1.3 million refugees can return home in security and, with UN assistance, begin to rebuild their lives. Acts of violence such as those committed against so many women will become less frequent. Perhaps one day they will end altogether.
This must be our goal. It is fitting that this Sunday, March 8, marks International Women's Day. It is an occasion to speak out, loudly.
Violence against women cannot be tolerated, in any form, in any circumstance, by any political leader or any government. The time to change is now. Let our voices be heard.