In honor of Mother’s Day, Save the Children released its annual “State of the World’s Mothers” report. I was saddened, but not surprised to see the Democratic Republic of Congo is the worst place to be a mother.
Severe violations of women’s human rights in Congo are, unfortunately, a perennial subject of attention for me and numerous other rights activists. Typically those violations are associated with the long and bloody conflict that has spanned the country and concentrated in its most recent stages in the East.
Indeed, DRC has been plagued by almost two decades of conflict resulting in the suffering and death of millions of men, women and children. Most chillingly, the Congo conflict has become synonymous with rape and other forms of sexual violence, which are committed with impunity by security forces, including the armed forces of the DRC (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo, FARDC), and other armed groups. For this reason, it was ranked the worst place to be a woman by the United Nations just last year.
But this year, the gross abuses associated with wartime violence against women don’t even factor into Congo’s ranking; the report cites among the highest rates of maternal mortality, child mortality, poverty, poor education and, interestingly, women’s very limited political participation, as the factors that have coalesced to put DRC dead last for mothers.
Additional indicators merit attention as well. According to the recently-released U.S. State Department Human Rights Report for DRC, despite the great risks associated with reproduction and the desire of women to limit or space childbearing, it is common practice for health care providers to require a husband’s permission before providing family planning services to women. Access to contraception remained extremely low – only 5.8 percent of women used modern contraceptive methods.
Amnesty recognizes a woman’s right to information and resources to help her plan her family and protect her from risk is a core part of her human rights, and one that women in DRC deserve inherently as human beings, even without the additional risk factors they face as citizens of the worst country in the world for mothers. Further, there’s the fundamental right women have not to be raped, to enjoy consensual sex with consenting adults, which is in the course of Congo’s conflict, flagrantly and consistently abridged.
It’s not only on the battlefields and public spaces that women of DRC have to fear sexual violence – it’s in the home as well. And though Congolese law criminalizes rape, spousal rape is not included in the protections of the law. Domestic violence is not only prevalent, but also afforded total impunity. The 2012 DRC human rights report characterizes it thusly:
According to the 2007 Demographic Health Survey (DHS), 71 percent of women reported some form of sexual, mental, or physical abuse. Other sources found that 86 percent of women in Equateur Province were victims of domestic abuse….Although the law considers assault a crime, it does not specifically address spousal abuse, and police rarely intervened in domestic disputes. There were no reports of judicial authorities taking action in cases of domestic or spousal abuse.
Until the women of Congo live lives free of violence, are protected by laws and judicial action that holds crimes against them to account, and have access to the information, resources and services they need to lead healthy, productive lives, I fear we will continue to see the stream of rights abuses unabated and the annual drumbeat of reports characterizing DRC among the worst places in the world for women. We cannot bear another year of this gross and all-encompassing injustice.
Amnesty’s My Body My Rights Campaign seeks to protect the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls around the world. Take action in support of these rights so that women of DRC and everywhere can envision a safe and healthy future.
Further, Amnesty International USA is calling on the U.S. Congress to introduce and pass the International Violence Against Women Act, which addresses the many forms of violence against women and girls and further provides for a comprehensive response that includes the various economic, health and other needs we know women of the DRC and the rest of the world need.