Reflections on 'One Billion Rising' -- DRC

An Afghan woman holds a banner referring to a global domestic violence awareness campaign called One Billion Rising during a
An Afghan woman holds a banner referring to a global domestic violence awareness campaign called One Billion Rising during a march calling for the end of violence against women, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. Dozens of Afghan activists have marked Valentine’s Day by marching in Kabul to denounce violence against women. Concern has risen after rights organizations last year found that Afghan women are frequently victims of violence — despite a law against it and increased prosecution of abusers. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)

Violence against women is not linked to specific countries, regions, religions, classes, races or ethnicities -- it happens all over the world from stable, developed economies to fragile, corrupt states. However, a quick Internet search shows that last month's inspiring 'One Billion Rising' campaign, the largest ever mass global action to end violence against women and girls, has led to many articles, radio broadcasts and tweets about the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It's the country that many immediately link with violence against women; the country that has been in the news countless times at the centre of stories about ongoing conflict, violence and mass-rapes; the country now dubbed the 'rape capital of the world'.

Quite rightly, the DRC receives considerable attention, and the campaign is a great tool to draw more attention to the often forgotten conflict and immense human suffering in the country, where women and children are indeed among the most vulnerable. But it is also important to recognise that violence against women is not the same as sexual violence.

Every year, thousands of cases of sexual violence are recorded in the DRC and countless more have gone undocumented. Data on the extent of sexual violence is unfortunately still incomplete, as it is based on survivors who have actively searched out assistance. The fear of stigmatization by family members and communities, coupled with the absence of support structures, limits reports of sexual violence, and therefore impacts the data that currently exists. Furthermore, data on sexual violence cases, without a further description of the context, does very little for effective planning of prevention and response programs.

We need to be careful in translating sexual violence immediately to female victims and male perpetrators; such a description only describes part of the dynamics. The scale of sexual violence and its physical, emotional, and economic consequences, continue to pervade and reinforce instability, particularly in the Eastern part of the DRC. Reports include gang rape, abduction for purposes of sexual slavery, forced participation of family members in rape, and mutilation of genitalia with knives and guns. Whereas women are, of course, the main victims of such abuses, men can be victims as well. This dynamic is even more underreported due to shame, fear of stigmatization and even more limited support structures for men are very limited. Furthermore, women are not only survivors, but can also be actors of change, just as men can play an important role in addressing and reporting sexual violence themselves.

Looking further into existing data on sexual violence, you will see that there is no typical perpetrator of sexual violence. Perpetrators go well beyond the often reported armed groups, army and police -- in fact, sexual violence committed by civilians is just as big a problem, and goes well beyond the eastern part of the country. While sexual violence is a reality of war, it is not restricted to war, and it is not restricted to DRC.

Coming back to One Billion Rising, the campaign starts exactly where it is necessary, with awareness raising. In order to address sexual violence, gender based violence or violence against women and girls, awareness is key. Only then can prevention and response activities be developed. Recognising that there can never be too many support structures to assist survivors, there is still a world to win with regards to prevention of abuses. One of the most important elements is addressing gender relations, how women relate to men, and men relate to women. This show's that including men in approaches is of utmost importance.

Finally, if we want to abandon any form of violence, against women or men, we need to ensure that countries such as the DRC have a well-functioning judicial sector, and the necessary legislative frameworks and security mechanisms that will protect the population. Whereas activities to prevent and respond to sexual violence are the start, addressing the broader issues is necessary to address this violence in a structural and durable manner.