When Justine Masika Bihamba took to the airwaves of eastern Congo to denounce the notorious warlord known as “the Terminator,” she knew she was risking her life.
She publicly called in March 2012 for the arrest of Bosco Ntaganda, a rebel leader of Joseph Kony’s ilk, a tall, ruthless man with a pencil moustache and a penchant for cowboy hats. Ntaganda is now on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, accused of war crimes on 13 counts, including torture, sexual slavery, recruiting child soldiers, and murder.
It was the long list of the Terminator’s alleged crimes against women, though, that Mama Justine —as the smiley but formidable women’s rights activist is known in war-torn North Kivu — knew by heart. Because of Ntaganda and the bands of armed men running riot in eastern DRC, her home was one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a woman.
Ntaganda ordered soldiers in his rebel group, the M23, to systematically rape women in horrific ways — to terrorize the local population in a region he wanted control of and to keep his men’s “morale high,” according to ICC prosecutors. Bihamba, however, is the co-founder of Synergie des Femmes pour les Victimes des Violences Sexuelles — a large anti-rape coalition which has been internationally recognized for helping thousands of women destroyed by these attacks. And she is not a person who could remain silent.
Thanks to Bihamba, 49, and a small but fearless group of female activists, the international community now knows about the plight of women in the DRC, where hundreds of thousands of women are raped every year, where mass rapes by the army are often reported but rarely prosecuted, and where locals claim babies are now being targeted. It has become an issue du jour, with star power lent by the actor Ben Affleck, by Michelle Obama, who in June announced a 180 million pound ($276m) US-UK partnership to fund girls’ education in the DRC, and most of all by Angelina Jolie.