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Life Arts

Courage and Hope in the Heart of Darkness

By Bruce Andrews  Posted by Rady Ananda (about the submitter)     Permalink
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The rape of women and little girls as a strategy by rival factions in the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a shocking reality for a Charles Sturt University academic.

Dr Elaine Dietsch has spent nights in central Africa, often terrified that armed rebels will come over the hill, past the neighbouring doorless hut of a woman and her husband who had previously both been raped, to her.

"What the rebels do to the women is another form of genocide," a Congolese gynaecologist told the Charles Sturt University (CSU) midwifery lecturer. "To destroy women, to destroy 'mommas', is to destroy the whole nation."

"The war in Congo has killed more people than any other war since World War II - 16 times more than the Balkans War in the 1990s and three times more than the Rwandan genocide," Dr Dietsch said. "I didn't know a thing until I got there, which shows how little we hear about it in Australia."


Dr Dietsch is a senior lecturer in the School of Clinical Sciences on CSU's Wagga Wagga Campus. She has travelled to Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo for up to six weeks of her last three academic breaks to work with and learn from women who are among the most disadvantaged in the world.

During the past summer in 2006-07, she worked at a hospital in Kenya where one in ten newborn babies and one in 60 new mothers die. According to 2006 figures published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, mortality rates in Australia are eight in 1 000 for babies and 11 in 100 000 for mothers.

Nevertheless, Dr Dietsch sees courage, strength and hope in Africa, and that's what draws her back every year.

"I go there because the women are just so strong and courageous, and I learn so much from them," said Dr Dietsch, who has seen the best and worst aspects of humanity. "I don't go there to try to solve the problems of the world. My hope is simply to help at least one woman, one child, one family."

Dr Dietsch is full of praise for the African midwives and the women they assist.


"Given the limited resources the people have, the midwives do a wonderful job. For example, there was an oxygen cylinder in the labour ward of one hospital I worked in and I thought, 'This is great, there's oxygen!', but the cylinder had been empty for three years. Because the basics that we are used to in Australia are non-existent there, you'll never hear me criticise the midwifery care. The knowledge and skills of the traditional and professional midwives is phenomenal," she said.

"I am also amazed at how women accept the children conceived by rape. They talk about them as being 'souvenirs of bad memories'. Those children are loved for the fact that they are children, and the traditional midwives work very hard sometimes to ensure that the women are able to accept their babies at birth.

"It doesn't mean that it isn't difficult for them - it's extremely difficult. Remember, these raped women, many of whom also suffer mutilation and disfigurement, are often banished from their homes by their husbands, who feel humiliated because they have been unable to protect them. Virgins who have been raped have little hope of marriage, which means their futures are very dim."

These experiences have had implications for Dr Dietsch's life in Australia. Since returning from her first trip to Africa she has spoken to dozens of community and service organisations to raise awareness about the plight of women in central Africa. She spoke to 40 different groups in 2006 alone.

Dr Dietsch explained that she does this because the women trusted her with their stories – of rape, abuse and oppression – with the plea that she shares the stories of their experiences with the wider world.

"A Congolese traditional midwife who had survived brutal sexual assault implored me 'Our request is that everyone in the world hear us and please help us'. Another midwife told me 'There is a black-out and no-one outside our country knows what is happening, and that is why no-one is helping us'," Dr Dietsch said.

Before she speaks to any group Dr Dietsch asks that it be an adults-only audience and that the audience is fore-warned about the often very disturbing content of her talk, especially regarding the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last year Dr Dietsch also published an article about her experiences in the International MIDIRS Midwifery Digest titled We ask that the world please hear us ... women from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) share their stories of survival.

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