By Marie-Eve Hamel (Staff Writer)
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) suffered from civil war from 1998 to 2003. This war mostly centred on the control of natural resources, and cost millions of lives. Whilst this war officially ended in 2003, violence remains part of the political environment in the country, mostly in the Eastern DRC where various rebel groups and the Congolese national army still engage in armed confrontations. For example, as recently as March this year a rebel attack on the Virunga National Park–reportedly caused by access disputes over fishing on Lake Edward–led to more casualties, including two rangers from the national park.
Throughout the civil war, sexual violence against civilians has been widely used as a weapon of war, and is still used by these armed groups. In 2010, this lead Margot Wallstom, the former UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, to say that the DRC was ‘the rape capital of the world’. It is also worth mentioning that while I was in Rwanda for my fieldwork, I met some peacekeepers working in Goma who told me stories of sexual violence and exploitation committed by those same UN peacekeepers who had a mandate to protect the civilian population. This corroborates reports of UN abuse in the country. Sexual violence in the Eastern DRC therefore involves a myriad of actors and can be explained by several reasons, such as gender and racial power dynamics, sexual drive, and sexual violence as a weapon of war.
As in other similar contexts, impunity for crimes of sexual violence has yet to be addressed in the DRC, and the men and women who suffer from these crimes find themselves on the margins of society, often rejected by their partners, families and communities. This social exclusion is a result of the stigma associated with rape, where its victims are often perceived as ‘dirty’, ‘sinful’ and ‘spoiled’, and where it is often believed that these men and women are to blame for these horrible experiences.
There is, however, one woman, Rebecca Masika Katsuva, who made a difference to the lives of these women in the Eastern DRC. Masika was a Congolese woman from the Eastern DRC, who repeatedly suffered from sexual violence at the hands of militiamen since the intensification of the armed conflict in 1998. For a researcher interested in the social reintegration of survivors of wartime sexual violence, her story is not different to the stories of those women I met outside of DRC for my research: stories of violence, social exclusion, stigmatisation and loss of self.
However, in the face of adversity, Masika responded by creating a survivors organisation for those women who survived war and rape, providing them with a shelter and a safe space to share their stories and build meaningful relationships. Through her organisation, ‘Association des Personnes Déshéritées Unies pour le Développement’ (APDUD), Masika has helped thousands of survivors to rebuild their lives, including providing opportunities for income-generating activities by growing crops on her land. She has also personally adopted many children born out of rape. Her work was so influential that she was also the subject of the documentary ‘Seeds of Hope’ by Fiona Lloyd-Davies. To put it simply, Masika represented the hope and the support that so many of the women I met are still looking for.
Sadly, I learned in February that Masika had passed away at age 49, her death attributed to complications resulting from malaria. Her passing led me to reflect on her work, thinking of the power that each individual holds in creating social change. Her death will leave a definite void for the organisation and for the thousands of survivors she helped.
Yet I believe that her legacy will live on because the sense of alternative family and belonging that she created in her organisation will continue. Indeed, through my reflections, I came to the conclusion that Masika’s work was admirable because she opened her house and her heart to women who had been victims of sexual violence, and who were blamed, stigmatised and socially excluded because of this act.
Masika and her organisation provided thousands of women who felt rejected and stigmatized the opportunity to rebuild their social ties with other survivors of sexual violence. This need to create an alternative family for survivors of sexual violence is not restricted to the Eastern DRC, with women in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina also agreeing that the ties they formed in survivors’ organisations are crucial for their well-being and their self-acceptance. These social bonds prove difficult to reproduce outside of these groups of survivors, which is why these survivors’ organisations are crucial for trauma healing, and for social belonging. However, since APDUD also provides counselling services and couple/family mediation, many women were able to return home as a result of these programmes.
Beyond the opportunities for income-generating activities, showing compassion and understanding to these women opens up possibilities for them to reconstruct their sense of self and rebuild their social value as valued human beings, a feeling often denied by their local community. Of course, counselling services and income-generating activities are necessary for this category of civilian war victims, but at the core of Masika’s work are feelings of compassion, friendship, and empathy.
This is extremely important to acknowledge since it demonstrates that we each hold the power to create social change, and this begins with these same emotions that Masika has shown throughout her life. This reflection made me hopeful, since whilst Masika was the beating heart of her organisation, her work shows that you only need one individual to care about a specific issue for transformative changes to occur. For me, this is probably the most meaningful legacy of her work.
Masika was an inspirational woman who provided hope, love and compassion to those living on the margins of society. Her generosity and kindness should inspire us all, and I know that for many, her work will never be forgotten.
 Reyntjens, F. (2009). The Great African War: Congo and Regional Geopolitics, 1996-2006. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 Howard, B.C. ‘Rangers Killes in Africa’s Oldest Park Push Death Toll to 150’, National Geographic, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/160314-two-rangers-killed-virunga-national-park/, 14 March 2016.
 ‘UN official calls DR Congo 'rape capital of the world'’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/8650112.stm, 28 April 2010.
 One of them is by Gilliard, N. (2011). ‘Peacekeepers or Perpetrators? An analysis of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN personnel in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, Mapping Politics, Vol. 3: 27-35.
 Mertus, J. (1994). ‘“Woman” in the Service of National Identity’, Hastings Women’s Law Journal, 5(1): 5-23.
 To learn more about Masika’s life and organisation, please see: https://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/images/sagan/10rebeccamkatsuvapressrelease.pdf
 More information about the documentary can be found here: http://www.seedsofhopefilm.co.uk/
 A few reasons can perhaps explain why men survivors of sexual violence are not included in Masika’s organisation, such as the men’s reluctance to disclose the truth about their sexual abuse and join survivors’ organisations or the need to create a safe space exempt of men for women who were sexually abused and may now fear members of the opposite sex.