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Lee Ann De Reus, Ph.D.
Lee Ann De Reus, Ph.D.
Bwimana Yanfashige lives in Mugunga Camp 1 in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. She has been there since April 2011 and sells fish in the camp to earn a living. She says: “I left my village because of fighting. It happened at night—we were surprised, everyone was asleep. So we had to leave in the dark…But we can only go back when it is peaceful.”
Bwimana Yanfashige lives in Mugunga Camp 1 in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. She has been there since April 2011 and sells fish in the camp to earn a living. She says: “I left my village because of fighting. It happened at night—we were surprised, everyone was asleep. So we had to leave in the dark…But we can only go back when it is peaceful.”
(Control Arms Photo/Flickr)

Defying Mass Violence and Genocide
Giving Women of the Democratic Republic of the Congo a Voice

In the larger global community, few people are aware that over the last 20 years, nearly 6 million people have died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) because of many armed conflicts and a failed state unwilling to care for its citizens. In those same decades, Panzi Hospital in Bakavu, the capital of the DRC, treated the injuries of over 20,000 women, men, and child survivors of sexualized violence. 

Extensive documentation by the United Nations (see 2010 UN Mapping Report) and humanitarian aid organizations (e.g., International Rescue Committee and Human Rights Watch) of such atrocities suggest that this is genocide. However, world leaders and judicial entities do not apply this label for a variety of political and economic reasons.

Lending an Ear

“I tell you my story because so many people don’t know. I want you to tell others.” This was my mandate from 14-year-old Mateso (her name has been changed as a safety precaution), a survivor of sexualized violence whom I met at Panzi Hospital in 2009. She was one of over 1,900 women who received treatment at Panzi that year for injuries due to rape. I was there to interview some of the survivors for a research project about the immense social stigma exacted on those who suffer sexual assault. As a scholar-activist, my objective is to serve as a witness, messenger, and advocate on behalf of Congolese women. They have a voice, but few people are listening. 

Mateso was too young to participate in the study as she was under 18. Despite her ineligibility, she was the first to arrive at our interview site three days in a row. I quickly realized that this determined young lady had something to say. Not wanting to deny her sense of agency, I sat and I listened. She shared unspeakable horrors that belied her confident demeanor, ease, and quick smile. Each of the 28 women I interviewed had similar accounts. 

Getting It Right

Most of the information communicated to the world about the Congo is shallow in analysis, steeped in negative stereotypes, focused on sexualized violence, and produced by outsiders (e.g., the media, academics, nongovernmental organizations). For example, frequently used labels such as “rape capital of the world” and “worst place in the world to be a woman” are provocative sound bites that fail to recognize all that is positive, vibrant, healthy, and functional in Congolese society. These gross oversimplifications do not account for the many men who are victimized or for nonsexual manifestations of violence, including torture, forced labor, child soldiers, murder, and child abuse. The phrase “rape as a weapon of war” is similarly problematic as it blurs the distinction between sexual assault as a strategy of an armed group versus a practice. Further, it implies there is an active war when the Congo is in fact post-conflict, and it obfuscates the difference between conflict-related and all domestic forms of intimate partner violence.

These narrow conceptualizations result in ineffective responses to human suffering and stifle Congolese self-determination. The mass atrocities in the Congo must be understood as a symptom of failed economic, social, and political structures rooted in the legacy of colonization, the geopolitics of the region, corruption, the scramble for natural resources, and the inferior status of women. 

A Place to Heal, to be Heard

Fueled by my passion to make a difference with Congolese and not for them, I teamed up with Dr. Denis Mukwege, the globally renowned Congolese obstetrician/gynecologist and founder of Panzi Hospital, to establish the Panzi Foundation USA (PFUSA) in 2010. Dr. Mukwege founded the hospital in 1999, and it includes the departments of pediatrics, internal medicine, surgery, and gynecology/obstetrics. With a staff of about 370 people, including 40 physicians, Panzi provides world-class care for more than 18,000 patients a year in an environment characterized by continued violence, poverty, and a lack of basic services such as consistent water, electricity, sanitation, and passable roads. 

A particularly unique aspect of the hospital is Maison Dorcas, an after-care facility for survivors of gender-based violence. Following discharge from Panzi, many women are unable to return to their homes for a variety of reasons such as needed follow-up care, conflict-related displacement from their communities, or family rejection due to the heavy social stigma associated with rape. At Maison Dorcas, women can extend their stay and receive counseling for the treatment of trauma, legal assistance for prosecution of perpetrators, literacy instruction, and skill-based training, all designed to enhance a woman’s ability to heal, provide for herself and her family, and take an active role in her community. The restoration of women’s lives strengthens civil society and is one essential measure for stemming mass atrocities.

The mission of our organization, its Board of Directors, and staff is to raise awareness about the challenges in eastern Congo, engage in strategic advocacy to end violence against women, and provide grants to Panzi Hospital to heal women and restore lives. Part of our task at PFUSA is to shift the narrative by amplifying indigenous voices like Mateso’s and offering more nuanced understandings of the country’s complex realities in order to restore dignity, hope, and a secure future for all Congolese women and their families. This is how we begin to defy mass atrocities and genocide in the DRC.

Lee Ann De Reus, Ph.D., is a 2009 Carl Wilkens Fellow, associate professor of human development and family studies and women studies at Pennsylvania State University-Altoona, and cofounder of Panzi Foundation USA. As a scholar-activist, she travels regularly to Panzi Hospital in the eastern DRC to conduct research, develop programs for rape survivors, and inform her advocacy work in the United States. 

The fellowship program, a project of the California-based nonprofit organization i-ACT, aims to give a diverse set of individuals with varying degrees of experience the tools and resources to build sustained political will to end genocide and mass atrocities. With the belief that the citizens of the United States have the power and the responsibility to prevent genocide, the goal of the fellowship is to grow a nationwide network of leaders who will shape US policy so that it is effective in preventing and ending genocide.

Creative Conmons licensed photo


— Lee Ann De Reus
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Policy Program Associate, Mass Violence and Atrocities

Do you want to be a part of a team devoted to real-world change and pushing for innovation on important global policy challenges? Are you a policy professional looking to be part of a mission-driven organization? Are you inspired to identify ways societies can effectively prevent, respond to, and recover from mass violence and build more resilient, peaceful societies? 

We are seeking a program associate to join our team and contribute energy, creativity, and skill to innovative programming on mass violence and atrocities.


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