Raped Lives

Raped Lives

Gwenn Dubourthoumieu, 2013 Finalist

An ongoing project about sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that explores the spread of rape by civilian perpetrators, a consequence of a conflict infamous for the use of rape as a weapon of war. Although the Aftermath Project has received many proposals in previous years about rape and conflict in the DRC, Dubourthoumieu’s proposal stood out for its exploration of the spread of sexual violence by civilians, a direct aftermath of several years of war. Her pictures move beyond mere portraits of victims to include local judicial proceedings, in which perpetrators are rarely punished, and women who have been raped who continue to struggle against the double penalty of stigmatization and injustice in a society dismantled by war.
These FDLR soldiers - Hutus chased away from Rwanda after the genocide in 1994 - admit to have participated in collective rapes during military operations against local militias (Maï-Maï).
An house abandoned after the fighting that occurred in Minembwe in 2011, in the highlands of Uvira, South Kivu province. This region of Congo, rich in gold, has been plagued by armed conflict for over 10 years.
"After all of them had raped me, I went back home. I felt very bad and I was afraid to tell my husband. So I hid my bruised body. Several years later I noticed spots on my body, so I spoke to a doctor. I was diagnosed with AIDS. They warned my husband. They advised him to take care of me. But my husband hated me. He left me. Today I live alone with our children."
The various armed groups terrorize the population of eastern DRC, as here, the Mayi-Mayi Muchombe in Bijombo, blocking roads to extort merchants and miners traveling to the gold mines.
“Armed men came in my village at about 5.00am. They killed my husband and kidnapped me. Four men raped me. When I returned home, my family did not accept me anymore; they were ashamed. So I left with my two children and my brother. We walked through the forest toward Kavumu (South Kivu). We had nothing to eat and to cover us. We suffered a lot. Often, I had to stay in the bed of a river because I had blood flowing from my vagina.”
Most rapes commited to "humiliate the enemy" occur when women go into the fields or in the forest to collect firewood.
"Ten men in civilian clothes forced me to transport my bag of casava flour and to go with them. I refused ; I told them « no, I don’t want ». But they answered « if you refuse to go with us, we will arm you ». I thus accepted and I transported my bag of flour to which they added another bag. We walked in the bush days and nights during three days. When we arrived at the camp, they forced me to become their wife. And after 8 months in the camp, I realized I was pregnant."
Many local militias (Maï-Maï or Rai Mutomboki, as here) were created to address the insecurity in this border region of the Congo. As the FDLR and the FARDC, these armed men engage in rape.
Vanessa Mariamu, four years old, was raped on Nov. 2, 2011 near Uvira, South Kivu, while her mother, gone to the fields, had left her to play alone outside the house.
After being the scene of the first fights in 1996, the Highlands of Uvira, South Kivu, remain one of the most isolated and dangerous region of the DRC.
Murina Milenge, 53, was raped by Mai-Mai Mpekenia in October 2011 while on her way to the fields near Chanzovu, in South Kivu.
On January 20, 2012, soldiers of the Armed Forces of the DRC smoke weed in the gold mine of Mahemba, South Kivu, attacked and looted the day before by other elements of the Congolese army.
Mariam, 63 years old, was raped by Congolese army soldiers while she was collecting firewood in the bush near the camp for Internally Displaced People (IDP's) in the North Kivu town of Mungote.
This 5-year-old girl is lying in a health center of Goma (North Kivu) after being raped. The lack of medical infrastructures usually means that rapes, especially those committed on very young girls, often have severe and sometimes irreversible consequences (infections, fistulas, sexually transmitted diseases among which HIV/AIDS, sterility).
This young 14 years old girl gave birth through caesarean after she was victim of rape in the highlands of Uvira (South Kivu).
In this region where mineral wealth and poverty of men coexist, witch-doctors recommend to unlucky miners to rape a young virgin to increase their chances of hitting the vein of fortune.
" My granddaughter was raped by a miner who was looking for lucky charms. I tried everything so that he would be arrested. It took a long time, almost a year, before the case went to court. From there, there was too much gymnastics in order to deprive me of everything that I had, even though my family has nothing … The rapist was sentenced to 12 month's imprisonment. Can you imagine, a man who raped a 3-year-old girl! Will he be discouraged? No, he will do it again. What affected me, it is to see that our justice does not manage to work properly… "
The United Nations Mission in DRCongo is the largest peackeeping mission in the world. It nevertheless remains largely powerless.
In the remote jurisdictions, where the traditional justice very often took the place of the legal justice, the United Nations and the American Bar Association help to move the tribunals to the crime scene.
" I keep carefully the clothes which I wore when they raped me, to prove the rape before the courts. But now, I‘ve begun to lose hope. I have already been asked to pay 7000 Fc to press charges, 3000 Fc to type it up and another 50 sheets of paper to print it. I also had to take care of all the medical expenses and on top of that I have to get by and survive in Kamina. The rapists are now free, and the court wants me to pay $20 to collect the judgment and to appeal. I lose heart. "
Some organizations assist the victims and encourage them to take legal action.
Given the deficiencies and the high price of the judicial system, most cases are settled by customary justice, amicably.
Before the customary court, a rapist gets away with a debt of two cows and $50US, payable to the family of the victim, aged 13.
Kyungu is 15 years old (left). She was repeatedly raped by a boy of the same age (right). "The family of the rapist tried everything to obtain an amicable arrangement. My mother eventually gave in in return for the payment of the maternity costs and the reimbursement of school expenses, as I cannot go to school any more. Now, I have to live with him. I even have to sleep with him... I am ashamed and I am afraid. I am just a child but my parents want him to marry me. They are ashamed to keep a pregnant girl with them."
" Before the rape, I was engaged. But the marriage was naturally cancelled. Now, my father has to pay back the dowry. The family of the rapist promised to pay for that, but, until now, they gave nothing. As I became pregnant, the most urgent priority was to release the rapist so that he could take care of the pregnancy. It was not conceivable that he went to prison. But it’s absolutely essential that he marries me because now nobody will want me anymore. "
"My husband heard what had happened to me. He told me that he could not bear to live with a woman who had been raped. He told me that he was ashamed and that he could not bear the way other people would look at him … He then threw me out of the house as if suddenly I had become a stranger… Since then, I live alone and without any assistance. I have no means of support, even my children abandoned me."
"When my husband returned home, I told everything to him. He did not react, did not say a word and took me to the hospital. I believed that he was angry with me. I was suddenly afraid that he would abandon me. But instead, he took me to the police and encouraged me to tell everything".
This 15 years old girl was brutally raped by a miner near Likasi. Pregnant, abandoned by her family, she lost everything even her ability to speak. Since her aggression, 6 months ago, she has not pronounced a single word.
Away from the fighting raging in eastern DRC, Clarissa, 9 years old, was repeatedly raped with her younger sister by a lawyer in Kinshasa. He accommodated her with her family after they had fled the fighting in the East.
Photographer's Statement: 

With 48 rapes per hour according to a speculative study by the American Journal of Health, the Democratic Republic of Congo continues to be notorious for being the "rape capital of the world," as described in 2010 by Margot Walström, Special Representative for the United Nations on Sexual Violence in Conflicts. Rape has been used as a weapon of war during the conflict that has torn the eastern part of the country for about 10 years. The rapes - collective in most of the cases and committed by both civilians and soldiers – have ever since ravaged the Congolese communities.

Today, about 10 years after peace accords were signed and a year after the second general elections were held, new trends show that rape by combatants is on the wane in eastern Congo but indicates at the same time that the number of civilian perpetrators rises in the whole country. Contrary to the image conveyed, the phenomenon of sexual violence is not anymore exclusively connected to the existence of an armed conflict.

The war in the DRC is over in most parts of the country, but women and girls remain targets for sexual violence. As a direct aftermath of several years of war, it seems that there has been an acceptance of sexual violence by the Congolese society. This reflects a general breakdown in social norms, withering of traditional conflict resolution and community sanction mechanisms, and absence of functioning state law enforcement and judicial institutions. The men who carry out these sexual crimes, both civil and military, are rarely questioned, judged, or arrested for their crimes. The girls and women - also victims of sexual mutilations, forced marriages, and prostitution - often suffer a double penalty. Destroyed physically and psychically, considered as "dirty" and relegated, they are eventually rejected by their community. For fear of being abandoned and because they are ignorant of their rights, many of them take refuge in silence.

Violent societies beget violent societies, especially when they refuse to acknowledge or seek accountability for wartime trauma.

In 2011, I received the Getty Images Creative Grant to create sensitization tools for AFPDE, a Congolese women nonprofit organization dedicated to stopping sexual violence in the South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. There, I had the opportunity to portray and collect testimonies from victims of sexual violence. I was struck by their courage and resilience and also by the outrageous injustice suffered by the Congolese women.

I now wish to use the Aftermath Project Grant to go back to Eastern Congo (Katanga, South Kivu, and North Kvu provinces), in order to continue portraying women struggling in a society dismantled after years of war, and illustrating this climate of impunity that allows sexual violence to flourish. I will also use the grant to document the work of women and activists who wish to stop the impunity by strengthening the Congolese judicial system and changing the perception of the communities toward victims of sexual violence, as well as the outstanding achievements of the general Panzi hospital, run by Doctor Denis Mukwege, that has received 16,000 victims of rapes since 2000.

Gwenn Dubourthoumieu
gwenn.dubourthoumieu's picture

Gwenn Dubourthoumieu (b. France, 1978) became interested in photography while working in Africa for NGOs. He worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 2007 and established himself in Kinshasa as a professional photographer from April 2010 to February 2012, working for the French Press Agency. He recently moved to Paris and joined Myop agency. Since 2010, his work has been regularly awarded. This year, he was awarded second place at the NPPA Best of Photojournalism Awards in the category "The Art of Entertainment." Additionally, his work “Turkana Warriors” was short listed at the Sony World Photography Awards and listed as one of the 10 best series in the Fine Art – Portraiture category. His feature about “the child-witches of Kinshasa” was awarded the jury’s special prize at the 8th Days Japan International Photojournalism Festival. In 2011, the same work was awarded the jury’s special mention at the Roger Pic Prize and the investigation prize at the European Journalism Festival. Gwenn received the Getty Images Grant for Good for his work “Raped Lives” about sexual violence in the DRC. In 2010, he was short listed among the exceptional finalists of the same grant and was awarded the jury special prize at the International Scoop and Journalism Festival of Angers for his work “Etat d’Armes."