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The Never Ending War

If rape is a weapon of the Congo's war, then treat it with the gravity afforded every other weapon. Until the sexual violence ends, the world has no right to speak of peace.
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There is a modest rush to bring humanitarian aid to the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). After weeks of escalating conflict, during which hundreds of thousands have been displaced, hundreds more women raped, and many civilians slaughtered, there is now the possibility that three thousand additional peacekeepers will be sent to DRC. There have been high-level meetings with militia leader Nkunda and Presidents Kabila of the Congo and Kagame of neighboring Rwanda. There is a new element of care and concern.

But why does the world behave as if there is suddenly a new war in the DRC? For thousands upon thousands of women, the war that began 12 years ago has never ended. Each day, women have been threatened with rape, torture, abuse and violation. Many of us have been calling for intervention on their behalf for years, especially the last two years. We have spoken at the Security Council, we have met with European governments, we have pushed the U.S. administration, we have made countless speeches. We have launched a worldwide campaign: "Stop Raping our Greatest Resource; Power to the Women and Girls of the DRC". We have begged, cajoled and pleaded for triple the number of peacekeepers to protect the women, for an end to impunity, for shining a light on the connection between the sexual violence and the plundering of Congo's vast resources my militias and multi-national companies. We have worked with brave and resilient women and men in the DRC who are building movements from the ground up to break the silence, demanding an end to war.

It is acknowledged across the board that the sexual atrocities perpetrated on women in the DRC are without a doubt the worst atrocities in the world today. It may seem extreme to call what is happening a Femicide --- the violence may not fit the exact legal definition of the Genocide Convention -- but for the women facing such systematic destruction, targeted precisely and only because they are women, Femicide is a word whose time has come. The numbers are appalling. More than a quarter of a million women have been raped in the last decade. The crimes are shocking: gang rapes; the raping of three-month-old infants and eighty-year-old women; the dispatching of militias who have AIDS and other STDs to rape entire villages; women being held as sex slaves for weeks, months and years; and women being forced to eat murdered babies.

At Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, over ten women who have been raped and tortured arrive daily. Their vaginas are ripped apart; for some that means that their reproductive organs are permanently destroyed. Many have fistula -- a hole in the wall of tissue between the vagina and the rectum or the vagina and the bladder. These wounds are most often inflicted by militias who attack using sticks, knives or guns, or through the merciless vaginal penetration of mass rape.

What makes it all so appalling is that everyone in power knows what is happening. On December 10, the founder of Panzi -- Dr. Denis Mukwege -- was awarded the United Nations Prize in the field of Human Rights, an award which Nelson Mandela and other esteemed leaders have received. There are Security Council resolutions, dramatic visits by western Foreign Ministers, increasing news coverage, coalitions of UN agencies, statements by humanitarian NGO's, 17,000 peacekeepers on the ground, and yet the sexual violence never ceases.

The missing piece of the analysis is that peace and war have always been measured in gun blasts. When men take up arms, and other men fight back, war is declared; when men agree to a ceasefire, the war is said to have stopped. Now we've come to the point when the world has recognized that in conflict after conflict, a gruesome, sadistic dimension has been added to modern-day-war, a widespread strategy employed by men to achieve their military and political ends: the rape of civilian women and girls.

All the parties to the war in the DRC may agree in theory that rape is being used as a 'weapon of war', but when they sit around the negotiating table and work out the terms that will end the fighting, they consistently forget to include for discussion just one weapon in the arsenal: rape. And so sexual violence has continued unabated, never letting up during the periods of so-called 'peace'.

And it will continue, because although we claim that rape is a weapon, committing a rape has never constituted a breach of any peace accord.

Enough of the lip service. If rape is a weapon of the Congo's war -- and we know that the threat of rape is a terrorist tactic, causing communities to flee their homes and farms, causing millions of deaths by starvation, making rape the single most deadly of all the militias' weapons --- then treat it with the gravity afforded every other weapon. Insist that the militias lay down their weapons AND stop their raping. Until the sexual violence ends, the world has no right to speak of peace.

Eve Ensler is a writer and activist, and the founder of V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women and girls.

Stephen Lewis is the Co-Founder of AIDS-Free World and the former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.

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