Motherhood demands risk, personal danger and courage. When Mary said yes to life, to becoming the mother of God, she risked everything. As a young, unwed mother in a patriarchal society, she risked losing her family, her place in the community and thus her means of survival. Joseph’s first instinct to the news of her pregnancy was to break with her, until angels interceded and the Holy Family was begun.
As we celebrate the month of Mary and Mother’s Day, motherhood is still a risky business. For the women of Eastern Congo, where atrocities against women are routinely committed, motherhood requires great courage. In the past 10 years 5.4 million people have died from the war and violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo; 47 percent of these are children. In a huge country, the size of the United States east of the Mississippi, rebel groups supported by foreigners fight with each other and the government, largely over the D.R.C.’s rich natural resources.
“Conflict coltan” mines in Eastern Congo are particular targets, as coltan is used in our cell phones, laptops and computer chips. Rwanda’s génocidères remain in Eastern Congo, where they and others continue their brutality. The largely collapsed D.R.C. is at best unable to protect people; at worst the untrained and unpaid troops and police themselves prey on the people.
Women and children suffer most. Alan Goss, the U.N. special representative to the D.R.C., laments that the rates of infant and maternal mortality in Congo are among the worst in the world. In Eastern Congo, with its coltan mines and foreign fighters, violence continues long after peace accords have been signed.
Women are routinely raped and mutilated as an instrument of war, as documented by the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women, Ms. Yakin Erturk. She notes, “The scale and brutality of the atrocities amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.” Girls as young as 5 and grandmothers as old as 80 are not immune to gang rapes, some of them committed with tree limbs, guns or machetes. Mothers are raped while their husbands and children are tied to trees and forced to watch. In many cases the victims are shunned, blamed for the attacks on them, because the rapes humiliate the family, or because they are infected by the attacks with H.I.V./AIDS and other diseases, or because many are impregnated with the children of these criminals and enemies.
Although the D.R.C. made rape and violence against women illegal in 2006, few perpetrators are ever arrested or prosecuted. The filmmaker Lisa Jackson shows in “The Greatest Silence,” a chilling recent HBO documentary, the impunity of these rapists, who brag on camera of their crimes.
What do women do in the midst of such horrible suffering? They try to raise their children and hold their families together, against all odds. They see these offspring of rape not as children of the enemy, but as children of God.
Archbishop Francois-Xavier Maroy grew up in these areas and now presides there. His three predecessors were murdered. He was recently in the United States to attend Catholic Peacebuilding Network conferences, and to urge action by the U.S. government, in particular by Senators Sam Brownback and Joseph Biden and Congressman Barney Frank, who are promoting legislation on these issues. “All of humanity are attacked when women are attacked,” he said, and continued: “Women are sacred, the mothers of life, the pillars of the family, she that educates society through her children. These are attacks against the whole human family, aimed at the extermination of the Congolese people of the east.”
He explained that with the collapse of the state almost all social services are provided by the church, from trauma healing to health care. But this is difficult to do, and resources are scarce. For women with more severe injuries, there is only one doctor able to treat them, Dr. Mukwege of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. According to the archbishop:
We work on reintegration of the women back into families and societies, and in the reintegration of their children. The problem is that after rape they are marginalized by their own family members, evicted and their household goods stolen as well, so the church tries to give other means to establish lives and become useful again. We also work with the children who are born of these rapes, as they are innocent victims too.
What we would ask the American church is first, for your prayers. Prayer is the strongest force, and can change hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. Second, we ask American Catholics to tell the U.S. government, which is the first power of the world, to help us bring peace back to Congo, and to work to return the Rwandan fighters back to Rwanda. We ask that the U.S. government be a force for reconstruction, not destruction. And third, we ask for financial assistance as well.
Despite the suffering of the people to whom Archbishop Maroy ministers every day, he maintains a positive outlook and gentle smile. “As a church, we must always keep hope and never be discouraged.” This May, let us pray together with the people of Congo, “Deliver us Lord from every evil, and grant us peace in our day.”