Justine Masika Bihamba’s work is centered in North Kivu Province in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where for about 12 years she has been fighting poverty and sexual violence, promoting peace and human rights and supporting war victims through psychological services, grants and medical care. The province has experienced tremendous conflict in the last two decades among insurgents, neighboring countries and the government battling over control of natural resources and land, all of which continues today.
In 2009, Bihamba, 48, founded Synergy of Women for Victims of Sexual Violence (Synergie des Femmes pour les Victimes de Violences Sexuelles), a coalition of 35 Kivu women’s groups that concentrates on victims of sexual violence in the region and lobbies national authorities and the international community to fight against the root causes of violence in the area. Its financing is provided by the city of Geneva and the Eastern Congo Initiative, a nonprofit group, among others. Bihamba is also an award-winning activist whose outspokenness has led to death threats and attacks by military in her own home in Congo, which she and her family recently fled for safer haven temporarily.
Bihamba’s responses in this PassBlue interview, held this summer, were translated from French by Aude Coquatrix of Donor Direct Action, a new network of women’s groups that includes Synergy. Bihamba also discussed work her group may do with Apne Aap, the Indian women’s rights organization, whose founder was also interviewed by PassBlue this summer.
PassBlue: Why did you choose the difficult work of helping women in eastern Congo when you could possibly emigrate to a calmer place, like Canada, where I understand you are trying to resettle your family?
Bihamba: I did not really choose this work. Life lead me to what I am doing now, it was like a natural path. After school, I found a job in an organization promoting the rights of women working in the fields, or farmers. This job made me realize the situation of women and the challenges they face – the negative influence of customs and traditions considering women to be inferior, the lack of education, the absence of knowledge of their rights. It was then natural for me to dedicate my life to the cause of women. And I cannot imagine leaving Congo today, when there is still so much work to be done in this regard.
PB: How has your advocacy on behalf of victims of sexual violence effected changes?
Bihamba: Ten years ago, when we first started our work to promote the rights of women victims of sexual violence, both the population and the authorities tended to trivialize rape and violence against women. Rape was a taboo subject, and victims considered themselves to be “unclean.” Since we started to raise awareness, mentalities have evolved and things have started to change significantly. Initiatives have been taken at local and national levels to end the scourge of sexual violence. Women victims have started to break the silence and to speak up. More importantly, we give them access to complete support, whether medical, psychological, social or legal. We also help them to get reinserted in society; part of our work is to organize mediation in the families and communities to stop the systematic rejection of rape victims.
PB: Your life was recently threatened by the Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda and his militia, the M23, which is operating with impunity in the eastern region. What happened, briefly?
Bihamba: The BBC interviewed me after the conviction of Thomas Lubanga last March [a Congolese found guilty of war crimes by the International Criminal Court]. The journalist asked me what I thought of the verdict. I of course praised it as a landmark decision in the fight against impunity, but I insisted that Lubanga’s accomplices should also be arrested and transferred to The Hague [where the international court is based]. I openly named Bosco Ntaganda as one of them. On April 16, Bosco and the members of his group organized a meeting about me in a hotel in Goma [the capital of North Kivu Province]. The purpose was to gather all possible information about me — my past, my activities and my schedule. On April 27, I received death threats by SMS text message. I started to hide from them; first in hotels, then within my family. Unfortunately, Bosco managed to locate me and his men surrounded my youngest brother’s house. So I had to leave Goma.
PB: Theories abound as to the reasons behind sexual violence in conflicts. What do you think are the root causes in eastern Congo?
Bihamba: There are four main causes of sexual violence against women in DRC today: the customs and traditions deeming women inferior to men; the armed conflicts around the exploitation of natural resources; the impunity in general; and the absence of a significant reform of the security system of army and police.
PB: A recent UN report links the current conflict in eastern Congo to support from the Rwandan government, which has denied responsibility. Do you agree with this finding? What do you think, basically, are the root causes of the conflict?
Bihamba: It is notorious that Rwanda helps and supports Congolese Army’s rebels and mutineers [as in the case of Ntaganda’s National Congress for the Defense of the People militia in 2009 and his M23 group in 2012]. Greed is the main reason for this support and the conflict in general: Rwanda wants to control the mines and to share the proceeds of the illegal exploitation of natural resources with the rebels.
PB: You have said in interviews that protection of civilians is nonexistent in eastern Congo. How can the UN, the government and other international groups fix this situation beyond what they are doing now, especially in light of fighting between M23 and the Congo Army, leading to thousands of refugees?
Bihamba: Protection of civilians should be the highest priority of the UN and the international community. They should be able to efficiently protect the population against armed attacks and massive rapes. They should also provide victims who have been forced to leave their village with housing and food. Right now, the population feels defenseless and left aside – something is not functioning in the system. Priorities should be revised – many international groups are in DRC, but the population doesn’t see concrete results. UN and international community have to work on getting concrete results.
PB: You have suggested that an international tribunal to try the war criminals, separate from the International Criminal Court. Why?
Bihamba: The problem is that the international justice of The Hague is too far from the DRC and the procedures too long, which gives criminals many opportunities to conceal or destroy evidence of their crimes. That is why I think that a mixed tribunal, composed of both international and domestic judges, should to be created in the DRC. Mixed tribunals would benefit from the experience of international magistrates while being closer to victims. I am confident this could happen if lobbying is sufficient.
PB: You say that women in communities look for collective solutions rather than focus on individual needs; how have women in eastern Congo demonstrated this?
Bihamba: The risk of an individual solution is the stigmatization of the victim, who often feels even more isolated. Our objective is to reinsert rape survivors in the society and to help them to resume their lives and activities within the community, just as they were before the trauma. The effort in that sense has to be collective. Collective activities are also part of the therapy in two different aspects: discussions and workshops are organized among victims where they can talk and share experience with other women; and sessions with counselors have also been implemented [there are two types of counseling sessions: the passive ones, where counselors let victims speak about the trauma without interrupting, and the active ones, where a discussion is engaged]. The point is to think and implement solutions altogether, and it has proved to be the most efficient method toward recovery for victims.
PB: You have been working a long time with women who have been raped and sexually abused; has the situation improved for them?
Bihamba: The situation improved for women victims of rape who can actually get help from organizations such as Synergy; unfortunately, not all of them have access to such help, far from it. With victims who know us and come to us, we achieved great results, notably by providing multilevel support [medical, psychological, legal]. In the communities where we intervene, mentalities changed and rape is not as trivialized as before, mostly through our awareness-raising. However, steps must still be taken to increase the number of victims we can reach out to, and above all, causes of mass rapes have to be tackled. This is the only way the situation of women will really improve.
PB: What is Synergy’s biggest achievement? What has been the largest failure?
Bihamba: Our biggest achievement everyday is to see the smile back on victims’ faces and to hear them sing and laugh again. Our largest failure is when we don’t manage to take care of some of the victims or their children because we lack capacity or material means. For instance, when we cannot keep women and have to send them back to their villages without being sure that they have a safe place to stay. That is why I struggle everyday to increase Synergy’s capacity.
PB: What do you tell women who have suffered beyond the pale of imagination? Is there a lot of depression among the women you see?
Bihamba: The key is not what we say to the victim, it is establishing trust – most of the time, victims don’t trust us immediately. Some of them are very suspicious, as they perceive NGO [nongovernmental organization] people as trying to take advantage of their pain and suffering. Once the victim truly trusts us, she starts talking; and it is her talking that relieves her, not what we can say. Listening is more important than talking at first. And yes, of course, most of the victims are suffering from depression, and it is a long process of recovery. That is why we implemented a psychological support mechanism with “listening houses,” where victims talk to counselors and therapists.
PB: You and Ruchira Gupta, the founder of Apne Aap, which focuses on women mired in sex trafficking in India, are discussing a project in which you send a team from Synergy to learn techniques from her group on making women safe in Congo, and then you plan to have your team train in Liberia as well. Can you describe how this will work and what are your expectations?
Bihambra: India is really advanced in terms of self-defense and women’s training, compared to DRC. Our project is thus to pick 10 women from a village in Congo to send them to India for a two-part training, in self-defense, led by Indian peacekeepers, and emotional-psychological training, led by victims and survivors organized under the Apne Aap banner. Then, the DRC women will go back to Congo to run a small academy where they will train other women there who have been subjected to sexual violence. Abby Disney [the American film producer and philanthropist] will film the entire process as a documentary to be used as a guide for other conflict areas, UN and nonprofit groups. Our main expectation is to give women efficient skills to defend themselves and to move on with their lives with confidence. We also hope the project to be self-sustainable in the long term, with women training each other.
PB: How do you relax after a long day dealing with trauma victims?
Bihamba: Spending time with my family and especially my two daughters, is my main way to relax and enjoy life. My daughters are my best friends and we are always able to share a laugh. This is irreplaceable. I also have grandkids now, and seeing them growing makes me a happy and proud grandma!
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.