Here in Congo, so many of our discussions have been about the sexual violence affecting women. We have heard heartbreaking stories of horrific violence and trauma that give us a new appreciation for human cruelty. And we have met so many people that give us hope – who demonstrate unimaginable resilience despite unbelievable trauma.
Just today, we learned that a seven-year-old girl was raped not far from Panzi Hospital, a renowned medical institution that we support, known for its cutting-edge surgical work to repair the bodies of rape survivors. During the discussion with our partner, Dr. Denis Mukwege – a Nobel Prize Nominee, I was struck most by how much of the response to this crisis is, understandably, focused on working with women to rebuild and recover. That work is essential. And JWW will continue to invest in these efforts.
But what about the men? And I don’t just mean the perpetrators. What about the fathers and brothers who shun these women, who do not allow them to seek medical attention? Who, in many cases, deny that these types of assaults take place? When we talk about gender-based violence, are men relegated to the role of bystander at best, and perpetrator at worst?
Those women who are able to get the medical support that they need after a rape – a minority – often find themselves in an impossible situation after they leave the hospital. Many are stigmatized in their communities and never allowed to return. For others, the trauma that they experienced is ignored. The rape is accepted as a matter of fact with an assumption that the ordeal is in the past. They are expected to just forget it ever happened.
Will men help their daughters seek justice against their perpetrators? Will men hold their wives, with love and compassion, after they have been attacked? The answer is often no.
In Congo, men seldom seem to be a part of the conversation, leaving women to recover alone.
To be sure, there are exceptions. Yesterday, we spoke to staff at the “>Sons of Congo program – which JWW also funds – has pioneered this approach by challenging men to think about their identities and their roles in the community as men. The program has already reached at least 17,000 men, all of them hungry for the opportunity to educate themselves and their families.
As a man leading an organization that works primarily with women and children, I have focused this trip on learning about what more we can do to change the culture of impunity, which contributes to rape and violence against women – and supports the social norms of silence and denial in the home and the community. This has been a goal and focus of JWW’s since its initial mobilization in Congo, and is a goal to which I am more dedicated than ever. We must work together to foster open and honest discussion among men who can, indeed, become protectors. After all, rape is not a women’s issue alone.
Michael Jeser, Executive Director of JWW, is traveling with four other JWW delegates in Congo’s eastern provinces. They will work with survivors of the country’s decades-long conflict, which has claimed nearly six millions lives. They will meet with JWW’s partners on the ground, with whom JWW works to create innovative programs and projects that change lives and transform communities.