The Globe and Mail
March 14, 2010
In her long battle against Congo’s frightening epidemic of sexual violence, Justine Masika Bihamba has paid a heavy price. Her children have been repeatedly attacked, and one of her daughters was sexually assaulted by a gang of soldiers who broke into her home and tied up the children at gunpoint.
In an average week, at least 150 women and girls are raped in the war-torn hills of eastern Congo – usually by soldiers or rebel militia, and usually with impunity. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped across the country in the past 12 years of war, often so brutally that they are left with permanent injuries.
Since 2006, Canada has poured $15-million in government money into a massive foreign campaign against the sexual violence in Congo. But Ms. Bihamba, who as leader of a women’s group spent lonely years speaking out against the problem, is now one of a growing number of skeptics who question whether this money is achieving its goals.
The anti-rape projects in Congo are sparking a fierce debate among experts. An internal Canadian government report obtained by The Globe and Mail concluded that Canada was spending too much money on T-shirts, vests, caps, cardboard folders and gaudy posters while failing to make progress on the bigger issues of prevention and justice. Ms. Bihamba chuckled grimly as she described the foreign- aid projects. The simple problem with the campaign, she said, is that most perpetrators of sexual violence are illiterate – they can’t read the printed messages.
The Canadian International Development Agency has taken a lead role in the international campaign. Its project was one of the first foreign-aid projects of Stephen Harper’s government, and it immediately made Canada one of the top donors in the fight against sexual violence in Congo.
The project has since been joined by a multitude of other efforts by governments and celebrities. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with sexual-violence victims in Congo last year and pledged $17-million (U.S.) to help them. Governor-General Michaëlle Jean is planning to visit Congolese victims next month. The governments of Belgium and the Netherlands have launched similar projects.
The wives of the prime ministers of Britain and France, along with various Hollywood celebrities, are expected in Congo in May to attend the opening of the “City of Joy” project for sexual-assault victims, headed by Eve Ensler, the U.S. playwright of The Vagina Monologues fame.
But Ms. Bihamba said there is no evidence that the foreign aid is having any impact on the epidemic of sexual violence. She said the government projects are wasteful and ineffective; the number of rapes and sexual assaults has shown no sign of diminishing.
The government insists it has been successful in helping victims with health care and legal help. But critics say it has funnelled money to bureaucratic United Nations agencies, wasting money on administrative costs and foreign staff while failing to adequately fund smaller Congolese groups that can help the victims more effectively.
“A lot of money is mobilized around the world for sexual violence programs, and it’s lost in administration and logistics,” said Ms. Bihamba, whose own organization has received more than $90,000 from the Canadian project, mostly to rehabilitate a hospital and buy an ambulance.
“The foreign experts have to be flown in and lodged. They have to have 4×4 cars and a good salary and danger pay. They’re in lakeside houses for $6,000 a month. All of this is money that could go to the program. How much will reach the victim? The victim, at the end, will get nothing.”
Denis Tougas, a long-time Congo analyst at a Catholic group called L’Entraide missionnaire, in Montreal, said the Canadian project is too bureaucratic – women’s groups in Congo feel excluded and “scorned” by the foreign experts.
In 2008, two years after the launch of the CIDA project, an internal government report said the project was failing to prevent sexual violence or provide justice.
The report, written by four Canadian aid officials and obtained by The Globe and Mail, said the project had succeeded in providing medical services to some victims. But it said the project was “weak” in preventing further acts of sexual violence. And it said the project’s justice component was “essentially non-functional.”
With the epidemic of sexual violence continuing, the report spoke of the “banalization” of rape in Congo. It criticized the CIDA project for spending too much money on T-shirts and vests (intended to educate Congolese people about sexual violence) and on “relatively minor activities such as thousands of dollars planned for meetings.”
Because of continued warfare in the region, the project was dependent on military escorts from UN peacekeepers, the report noted. “The net effect is that the areas where most rapes are happening are the areas where barely any prevention or response can be implemented.”
A CIDA spokeswoman, Emilie Milroy, said the agency is satisfied with its Congo project, which is now scheduled to continue until June, 2011. She said the project has helped more than 36,000 victims receive health services, including psycho-social services, and it has provided skills training to more than 7,000 victims. It has also given legal assistance to 1,863 victims, compelling 188 perpetrators to pay compensation, she said.
“One program in the space of a few years cannot redress all of the challenges related to the scourge of sexual violence,” she said. “The work CIDA is funding is important and there are results.”