Rape in the Congo not a “sexy issue”

While Natural Resources minister Lisa Raitt was still busy defending the isotopes situation and apologizing for her callous “sexy issue” comments about cancer, a scenario of a different kind, largely unnoticed by MPs or the media, was unfolding on Parliament Hill.

Hard-working Senator Mobina Jaffer organized June 11 to draw attention to the violence being committed daily, for the past 10 years, against women and girls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She invited a delegation of 100 people, mostly Congolese Canadians, to participate in an event that was supposed to help educate the public on the brutalities that continue.

I and two other local women accompanied our friend, Mimi Kashira, to Parliament Hill as part of the delegation. Senator Jaffer had asked Mimi, who fled Congo more than a decade ago and settled in Kingston, Ont., to speak at a press conference that kicked off the day.

The cruelty facing women in the Congo is nothing but terrorism, “and it is unacceptable,” Mimi sad. “When five armed men take someone’s wife and mother, rape her in public, one by one, force her husband and her kids to watch how she is being mutilated, it is terrorism.

“When four armed men take a five-year-old from her mother, rape her one by one, it is terrorism.” She had other examples, all of them true: seven armed men raping a 65-year-old woman; UN peacekeepers, providing cookies, chocolates or a can of beans in exchange for sex. “It is terrorism.”

Senator Jaffer also spoke passionately about the civil war that has killed some five million people. She shared the story of a woman she met named Bernadette, who had endured, on two different occasions, the murder of her husband and son, the rape of two daughters, her own multiple rapes. “She shouted for help, but no one answered her pleas.”

The third time the militia invader her house, Bernadette was again savagely raped. “This time her genitals were mutilated. The militia poured kerosene in her vagina and lit her on fire.” Bernadette survived, but this time, “she did not shout out for help. She knew there was no one to answer her pleas.”

MPs Paul Dewar, Keith Martin and Justin Trudeau also spoke. Lest Canadians think the brutality is just something that happens “over there,” and has nothing to do with us, the parliamentarians pointed out that everyone who has a cell phone or Blackberry has a little piece of the mineral coltan in it, which most likely comes from Congo, where diamonds, gold and other minerals are part of the battleground over which the war is being fought.

Since I and other guests were watching the press conference on closed-circuit TV from another room, I asked Mimi when she came out how many media were present. About three, she reported.

In the afternoon Jaffer led the group to the Senate chambers, where she repeated her speech about the atrocities and introduced the delegation of 100 Congolese Canadians in the visitors’ gallery. As one, the senators rose to their feet and turned toward the gallery above them in a show of respect.

From there, we descended to the zoo that is the House of Commons during Question Period. Lisa Raitt and Health minister Leona Aglukkaq were again under attack over the Chalk River facility and the lack of isotopes available in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Insults hurled back and forth across the floor.

Eventually the topic switched when Winnipeg MP Part Martin rose to ask the government why Canada is shipping asbestos, long out of use in our country, to India, where workers handle it with their bare hands and breathe in the dust. The answer was vague.

Then Justin Trudeau rose to ask why the government is doing nothing about the violence against women in the Congo. He pointed to the 100 visitors in the gallery, many of whom have fled and settled in our country just because of that violence. Foreign Affairs minister Lawrence Cannon rose to defend Canada, saying that yes, we are doing something about it. Just what, was not clear.

The topic shifted again. A francophone MP rose to ask a question about fisheries. One of our Kingston friends asked Mimi to translate the issue. “It’s something about lobsters,” Mimi said.

It was over. We were led out of the gallery by Senator Jaffer and back to another room to discuss how to move forward, how to make this issue known, how to get attention from Canadians, how to protect women and girls who are subject to such unspeakable violence.

At the end of the day, Senator Jaffer’s words came back to haunt. “She shouted for help, but no one answered her pleas.”


Debra Fieguth is refugee coordinator for the diocese of Ontario, and a former PWRDF board member.

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