THE BLOG

The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict Must Look to Abuse of Women in the DRC

02/06/2014 09:18 BST | Updated 01/08/2014 10:59 BST

Next week (10-13 June) the government ministers of many countries from around the world are gathering in London to pledge their commitment to ending sexual violence in conflict. The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict is co-chaired by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Angelina Jolie. It represents the largest gathering ever brought together on this subject.

In 1991 I played the part of Pauline in Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden. The character of Pauline is a victim of torture and rape in the play; in preparing for the role I met with many torture survivors and was enormously moved by their stories. As a consequence, in my charity work I have really felt driven to highlight the situations of women refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom, sadly are survivors of sexual violence.

I am proud to be a Patron of a unique charity called Freedom from Torture which provides medical services and therapeutic treatment for victims of torture from around the world. The organisation also speaks out against the brutal practices of torture and sexual violence, and on 2 June they are releasing a horrifying but very important report into sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

One of the focus countries of the Global Summit will be the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in central Africa - and rightly so. Dubbed 'the rape capital of the world', the DRC has become synonymous with violent mass rapes by soldiers and militias for which no-one ever seems to be held to account.

The decades-long conflict in the vast, and largely lawless, east of the country is often blamed for the shocking prevalence of sexual violence in DRC but the new research produced by UK charity Freedom from Torture suggests that rape, gang rape and multiple rape is being systematically used beyond the conflict zone too.

According to their new report, brutal sexual torture is being routinely used inside official detention facilities all over the country to punish politically active women. Far from being a by-product of the conflict, the report shows rape and gang rape being used by state security officials in prisons to stop women speaking out about politics, human rights and, in some cases, rape itself.

The report is based on evidence from forensic reports written by Freedom from Torture's doctors who are specially trained in documenting the physical and psychological effects of torture, including rape.

Women of all ages, from 18 to 62, are affected and the group includes traders, graduates and professionals. Almost all of the women were arrested because of their involvement in political or human rights campaigning or because a family member or relative of theirs was politically active.

This kind of persecutory rape is sinister, under-reported and perpetuates the marginalisation of women in DRC. It also has the potential to deal a crippling blow to both the political and economic future of the country.

In the DRC women are already seen treated as objects, rather than individuals, in the eyes of society. If agents of the state are actively preventing women from empowering themselves and raising their voices to speak out against discrimination, gender-based violence and political sidelining, then the status quo is unlikely to change. If those brave individuals who do speak out against the government, or who speak for under-represented groups, are sexually tortured into submission, then others are not likely to follow in their footsteps.

For millennia torture has been used to silence its victims. Its primary purpose is to take away their voice and to dehumanise them - to make them feel that they are worth nothing. In the DRC, this is precisely what is happening to a generation of women activists in prisons up and down the country including the capital, Kinshasa.

When delegates at the Global Summit look at sexual violence in the DRC it is vital that they don't limit their scrutiny to those areas still plagued by active combat. Women far away from the conflict zones are also suffering at the hands of the security forces; and the perpetrators of their abuses are also enjoying impunity.

The DRC government, along with 145 other governments, has signed up to the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict upon which the Global Summit is based. This Declaration is intended to send 'an important message to the victims of these crimes that the international community has not forgotten them, and to the perpetrators of rape that they will be held to account'.

To fully comply with the commitments it has made through signing this declaration, the DRC government must allow a spotlight to be shone on the actions of its security forces within the walls of its sanctioned detention facilities, as well as on the battlefield.