Between the Lines Q&A

A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Feb. 24, 2010

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Combatants in Congo Target Women
with Unspeakable Violence

 RealAudio  MP3

Interview with Sarah Spencer,
director of the International Rescue Committee projects in Eastern Congo,
conducted by Melinda Tuhus


Since 1994, violence has raged in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as armies and irregular forces from within the country and from many of the nine surrounding nations have fought over territory and the nation's enormous mineral wealth. An estimated five million people have died as a result of war, illness or starvation since 1988. In recent years, the violence in Congo has been concentrated in the eastern provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu, near Rwanda. Violence against women has been a hallmark of life there, and women are at risk for rape, dismemberment and death as they go about the tasks of their daily lives.

In the city of Bukavu, in South Kivu Province, the International Rescue Committee, or IRC, has been working with local organizations for 35 years to protect women from gender violence. This is the city that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited recently to promote women's development and condemn violence against women.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Sarah Spencer from her office in the IRC compound in Bukavu, where she directs the IRC's programs in eastern Congo and has been based for the past two years. Spencer discusses the dangers women face in Congo and the grassroots programs that have been developed to protect and empower them.

SARAH SPENCER: Whether you're in the U.S. or Congo, if you're a survivor of rape, you can receive medical treatment within 72 hours that will help reduce of likelihood of transmitting HIV, treat sexually transmitted infections, and prevent unwanted pregnancies. So the IRC works with national partners to make sure that women can access these services safely and in a timely matter. Eastern Congo is an incredibly beautiful part of the world, but also very rural in some places, so what we do is work with our partners to make sure those services are available throughout all parts of North and South Kivu, which are two provinces in eastern Congo that have been plagued by civil war for over a decade. And we worked with our partners to make sure women in very rural areas can access services locally, and that they don't have to travel long distances to the provincial capital to receive that treatment.

BETWEEN THE LINES: How has the violence in eastern Congo affected women's ability to get those services?

SARAH SPENCER: ...plagued a part of the world basically since 1994. In some parts we see, over the past several years, some parts of eastern Congo start to stabilize, some parts have deteriorated, and that cycle has continued over the last several years. While Congo hasn't been featured in the news recently, the war is still continuing and that's in part because the world and the international media has been gripped with the tragedy in Haiti and focused on various crises and conflicts around the world. But unfortunately, even though the international attention may have shifted a bit, the war is still going on, and the reality that every woman and girl faces in eastern Congo is that they wake up facing a risk that they may be the target of an assault or an attack. And that is a very real threat that all women and girls face in eastern Congo whether they're going to their farms to harvest crops, or to the market to buy goods, or whether they're taking their children to school. It's a daily threat and a very real threat that women and girls face.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Have you ever heard any explanation for the level of barbarity there? Like boys forced to have sex with their mothers, or cutting off and cooking someone's limbs and forcing family members to eat that?

SARAH SPENCER: It's linked to deliberate military strategy. In some respects, when you're forcing family members to commit atrocities against their own family, you are breaking down societal norms and terrifying a population to bend to the will of the armed group that is controlling that part of the country. In some cases, armed groups are given carte blanche to carry out whatever they will against communities. If you can imagine, the actual military targets themselves are the communities and not necessarily another armed group. And that is all parties to the conflict in eastern Congo. IRC has certainly seen that the levels of brutality against women and girls have increased over the last year, and has issued some very strong statements about it. We were alarmed to see the increase in brutality and as a result we're working with some of the foreign governments that are working towards peace in eastern Congo and are providing funding for humanitarian agencies to ensure that they're committed to a peaceful resolution to the conflict in eastern Congo and to ensure that civilian protection remains the number one priority for the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, and that that's not overlooked for greater military objectives on the part of the international community or the UN.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I read a recent report that said, worldwide, 40 percent of reported rapes are of girls 15 and under. I don't know how the age of the victim affects the reporting, but what do you know about the age of victims of sexual violence in Congo?

SARAH SPENCER: Between a quarter and a third of those reporting are children, under 18. And 80 percent -- and in some places it's even higher -- are reporting that they perpetrators are members of an armed group.

BETWEEN THE LINES: You work with local organizations. What can you report about progress in dealing with the issue of sexual violence?

SARAH SPENCER: We've partnered with these other organizations to help them mobilize for change in the way women are viewed in Congo and to help afford them other opportunities in terms of education, in terms of inheritance, and create a space for women to really enjoy their full life. These stories are actually the heartening ones, and should serve as an example to the international community that peace and stability rest on the shoulders of women, that they are really the drivers for peace and security and prosperity in eastern Congo. Contact the International Rescue Committee at (212) 551-3000 or visit their website at

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Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 45 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending March 5, 2010. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.

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