Congo, Democratic Republic of the

UNICEF supports a hospital's mobile clinic for survivors of sexual violence in DR Congo

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© UNICEF DR Congo/2010/Walther
At Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, located in DR Congo's South Kivu Province, a woman has come to visit her granddaughter and her daughter, a survivor of sexual violence.

By Cornelia Walther

BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 18 January 2011 – Maria, 20, whispers as she recounts being raped by soldiers two days before Christmas.

“They entered our house in the night. One after the other they went over me, in front of my son and husband. I thought the pain would kill me,” she says. “The second time I died was when my husband refused to touch my body or the food I had prepared for him.”

Sexual violence is present across DR Congo. In the conflict-affected east, it has been used as a weapon of war, systematically destroying hopes for social rehabilitation. Yet this pervasive human rights violation is not limited to armed conflict. Sexual violence takes place in schools, homes and workplaces all over the country.

Poverty and abuse

“Among the major reasons for the persistence of sexual abuse is poverty,” explains Dr. Ibrahim Balingene, coordinator of a mobile clinic for survivors of sexual violence at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, located in South Kivu Province. “Lack of education has a direct link to mutual disrespect,” he adds.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF DR Congo/2010/Walther
Women collecting firewood near Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, DR Congo, where UNICEF supports a mobile clinics to treat women affected by sexual violence.

For a long time, many people in DR Congo considered violence against women and girls a standard component of daily life. Recently, however, women have been speaking up on the issue. National and international organizations have also expanded the monitoring of sexual violence, providing qualified assistance to survivors.

Progress is being made, yet there’s a long road towards zero tolerance of sexual violence. Social taboos remain strong.

Devastating consequences

Sexual violence has devastating physical, psycho-social and economic consequences. Survivors face not only the possibility of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, but also unwanted pregnancies and the debilitating condition known as fistula.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF DR Congo/2010/Walther
Many people in DR Congo used to consider violence against women and girls a standard component of daily life, but now more women are speaking up about the issue.

Yet fear of reprisals or rejection leads many Congolese survivors to suffer in silence, and alternative arrangements are the rule rather than an exception in addressing cases of sexual abuse. Countless families of survivors accept reparations or marriage to the perpetrator.

“We told nobody in our village what had happened, but that night changed my life forever;” Maria says with tears in her eyes.

Many women do not manage to get care after being assaulted. Fear and shame are one reason, lack of access another. Distances between affected areas and health centres are far, and cars or public transport are hardly available.

Support for mobile clinics

To respond to these concerns UNICEF is funding ‘mobile clinics’ via Panzi Hospital.

The collaboration between UNICEF and the hospital began in 1998 with a maternal health programme. In 2003, UNICEF began supporting Panzi’s work with survivors of sexual violence – including the provision of medication, post-exposure prophylaxis for patients potentially exposed to HIV, training of psychologists, vocational training for survivors during their convalescence, and nutrition assistance for survivors’ young children.

Panzi’s mobile team, which has been active since 2005, is fully funded by UNICEF. Its mission is to provide medical and psycho-social treatment in the crucial hours following an assault. If post-exposure prophylaxis reaches the survivor within 72 hours, HIV transmission can be prevented.

‘Our top priority'

During each of the mobile team’s field visits, an average of 500 women – including about 160 victims of sexual violence – come in for gynaecological consultations. In 2009, the team of three doctors and two psychologists, conducted 108 emergency missions throughout South Kivu and assisted over 4,000 survivors of sexual violence – half of them children.

“If a victim has been assaulted yesterday and calls us today, she has only one day remaining,” says Dr. Balingene. “To reach her in time will become our top priority.”


 

 

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