Covenant Couple Tackling Violence Against Congo Women

Post a Comment » Written on October 28th, 2008     
Filed under: News
By Stan Friedman

GOMA, CONGO (October 28, 2008) – The United Nations has declared Congo the worst country in the world for sexual violence against women.

A recent article in the New York Times stated, “Tens of thousands of women, possibly hundreds of thousands, have been raped in the past few years in this hilly, incongruously beautiful land. Many of these rapes have been marked by a level of brutality that is shocking even by the twisted standards of a place brutalized by civil war and haunted by warlords and drug-crazed child soldiers.”

Two Covenanters are working to help reduce the attacks and bring about healing.

Judy and Dick Anderson of Monroe Covenant Church in Monroe, Washington, helped start HEAL Africa in the eastern Congo city of Goma. Dick previously served as executive director for two years; she currently serves in that position.

Judy and childBoth have a long history in Congo. She grew up in the African nation, the daughter of Evangelical Covenant Church missionaries Dan and Anne Ericson. Although HEAL Africa is not a Covenant project, it has worked closely with the Covenant Church of Congo (CEUM), Covenant World Relief and the Paul Carlson Partnership.

HEAL Africa operates a teaching hospital in Goma that specializes in orthopedic surgery and gynecological surgery. The hospital operates with 16 Congolese doctors and surgeons, 28 nurses, and an administrative team for a total of 80 staff.

HEAL performed 1,134 general and orthopedic operations in 2007. Many children and adults receive surgery for conditions such as clubfoot, cleft palate, spina bifida, polio, rickets, and injuries from land mines, gunshots and grenades.

Doctors also average more than 300 surgeries a year to repair fistula tears. The tears result from a lack of access to basic healthcare, giving birth at a premature age, and often rape. They leave women incontinent and often social outcasts.

The hospital is the only facility in the area where the condition can be repaired and is one of two facilities featured in an award-winning documentary, LUMO, about the devastation of sexual violence in Congo (a trailer for the video may be found at the movie’s website). National columnist Nicholas Kristof describes the work of HEAL Africa “truly heroic.”

The Andersons also help widows and orphans to restore their lives and be re-integrated into their communities. This initiative has included working with a project in Karawa started by retired Covenant missionaries Bob and Janet Thornbloom. An accompanying photo shows Judy with one of the children they are helping.

“Dick and Judy are two people who really know what it takes to get the job done,” says Bob Thornbloom. “HEAL Africa has become a tremendous model. They understand the complexity of trying to get something done in a totally dysfunctional country – and in the worst part of the country.”

“We have been looking for people with vision, who are already doing it.”

The Andersons were consultants for a variety of organizations following the genocide in Rwanda. By the late 1990s, they were looking for a way to help the people of Congo.

“Having worked there before, we both knew that having a well-designed program means nothing if it comes from the outside,” Judy says. “We have been looking for people with vision, who are already doing it.”

They met orthopedic surgeon Dr. Kasereka (“Jo”) Lusi  and his wife, Lyn, who worked in school and hospital administration in Congo for 19 years. An accompanying photo shows Dr. and Mrs. Lusi at left along with Judy and Dick Anderson.

The Andersons helped them develop community programs. Eventually, the Andersons formed HEAL Africa. The goal, however, is to help Congolese transform their own country.”

“We strongly believe that it’s important for Congolese to be able to see and work with other Congolese who are professionals, who are doing great work in difficult circumstances,” Judy says.

Until recently, rapists in Congo could carry out their crimes with little fear of being prosecuted. Under pressure from international governments and organizations, Congo has begun to address the sexual violence against women. Arrests and prosecutions have begun.

The new constitution of Congo approved in 2006 has listed some protections for women and children, Judy says, but most people don’t know about them. HEAL Africa has introduced a new program called Gender & Justice, which introduces the new constitution and engages community leaders.

The program includes separate curricula for community leaders, primary teachers, and secondary teachers, Judy says. It discusses values and practices based on “on the Bible and Koran, proverbs from their culture, tribe or clan, and actual practices in order to help them assess and choose how they will treat each other. It discusses gender and sexuality in this light.”

CouplesAttitudes slowly are changing. Discussions of sexuality and rape are not as taboo, and men are becoming aware of the dignity of women. “There are some men who are enlightened and demonstrate God’s grace and love to their wives and families,” Judy says. “That speaks loudly by example.”

There is no one cause that has led to the degradation of women; other causes are hard to pinpoint. The church, however, must shoulder some of the blame as well as responsibility for bringing about change, Judy says.

Although 95 percent of the people are considered “Christian” – as is the case in Rwanda – the church has not understood that men and women as well as other ethnic groups are made in the image of God, Judy says.

“In Congo, the various influences over time have combined to make the valueof the woman as ‘less’ than the man, and the target for domination and subjugation,” Judy explains. “Part of this has been taught in the church as, “the woman must
be subject, made out of man . . . or submissive to. Both Old Testament andNew have been used incorrectly to perpetuate the power of men.”

Churches “miss the preceding verses that talk about mutual submission or the following ones where Paul says the man should love the woman like Jesus loved the church – and gave himself for her!” Judy adds.

The violent exploitation of women occurs throughout the country, but is most prevalent in the eastern portion of the country (the Covenant operates in the northwestern region). Many of the rapes have been committed by anti-government as well as government troops in the country that continues to experience conflict in the region.

Women are raped or used as sex slaves as a way of humiliating the men, Judy says. “The cultural assumptions and practices are that women cannot question men, cannot confront them. The church has largely not challenged that assumption, so when danger comes, or when in crisis mode, no one questions what they have ‘always done.’ ”

Experts believe the sexual violence will continue at least as long as the warfare continues. The fighting is largely to control the rich resources of Congo, in the process making the country one of the poorest in the world.

“This is an extremely difficult time for eastern Congo,” Judy says. “It is tragic that eastern Congo, the breadbasket of Congo, is unable to produce food.”

Violence has displaced one million people in the North Kivu region – an estimated 200,000 in the past five months. “People are not able to plant – it’s not safe,” Judy says. “Children aren’t able to attend school because they’re in refugee (IDP) camps. It is a terrible situation, but it’s barely on the horizon for people in the U.S.”

Despite the tragedies, “Individual stories of faith, heroism, and courage” continue to inspire the Andersons and other workers, Judy says. “We see it in so many of the people we work with. We know God is there, and nothing can separate us from his love, leading, and guidance, and there is nothing God cannot redeem.”

(Editors note: The HEAL Africa hospital currently is tending to civilians wounded as a result of a recent military offensive led by rebel leader Gen. Laurent Nkunda. News reports state the Congolese army is in retreat and with an estimated 20,000 people fleeing to Goma. United Nations helicopter gunships and armored units reportedly are attempting to repel Nkunda’s forces. Nkunda has threatened to take Goma, despite calls from the U.N. Security Council for him to respect a January ceasefire. For an update on the situation, see New York Times. The Andersons currently are in California. To read more about other initiatives to combat violence against women, visit Victims of Abuse and Break the Chains.)

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