The sin against women in Congo

The larger-than-life portrait of Thérèse, an 11-year-old orphan in the Democratic Republic of Congo, says it all.

She sits on a cot, head bowed, staring down at her hands, a small bag of possessions resting beside her. She looks as if she is trying to be as still as possible, so no one will notice her.

Or maybe she’s just trying to forget that several men raped her while she was out gathering firewood near the refugee camp where she lived, that she is among the tens of thousands who have been victims of sexual violence in her country.

The photograph of Thérèse is part of an exhibition on gender-based violence called

“Congo/Women: Portraits of War,” on view in the north gallery of the public lobby at the United Nations through Nov. 12. Information and essays on the topic also can be found at http://congowomen.org.

“This is not a natural disaster; it is our disaster as a global community,” write Leslie Thomas and Jane Saks, co-directors of the exhibition.

Through photos and text, Congo/Women salutes the courage of these women while doling out some grim statistics. The average life expectancy for a woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo is only 46 years. In addition to sexual violence, women and girls are threatened by a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS and little access to health care.

The World Council of Churches believes violence against women is a sin.

In a public statement issued in September, the council’s Central Committee urged its member churches “to publicly condemn violence against women” that has become pervasive in Congo because of armed conflict.

The brutality of the atrocities, the statement said, “go beyond rape and aim at the complete physical and psychological destruction of women as sexual slaves, with implications for the entire society.”

These women must know they are not alone, the council says.

The photograph of Thérèse was taken in 2006. By now, I hope, she has found some peace in her life.

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