In Eastern DR Congo, displaced girls and women rebuild their lives after rape
By Laurent Duvillier
Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 21 December 2012 - Josephine* will never forget that night. Three weeks ago, the 17-year-old displaced girl was asleep when she heard screaming outside. She tried to rush out of her makeshift shed yet two men with rifles and knives had already blocked the exit door.
“They pushed me back inside”, said Josephine. “One of them was threatening me with a knife while the other raped me. I couldn’t move or shout. I thought I would get pregnant or sick. I was so scared. I didn’t want to get killed.”
The same night of December 1st, fourteen other displaced girls and women like Josephine reported incidents of gender-based violence, when the displacement site of Mugunga III was attacked and looted near Goma, North Kivu province. All of them received psychosocial support from UNICEF partner ‘Hope in Action’ and life-saving medical care within 72 hours, preventing HIV/AIDS and pregnancy.
Amidst renewed waves of violence between the Congolese government forces and armed groups in Eastern DR Congo, children make one third of all survivors of gender-based violence UNICEF partners provided care to since April.
Women do everything to keep it secret
“After being raped, women feel humiliated, like ‘rubbish’”, said Charly, 43, a survivor of gender-based violence who now volunteers as counsellor in the displacement site where she lives. “Many do everything to keep it secret. They prefer to suffer in silence and disclose what happened only when their body gets sick.”
Like fifteen other counsellors in displacement sites in and around Goma, Charly provides psychosocial support to survivors after being trained in active listening and family mediation by UNICEF partner ‘Hope in Action’. “When rape occurs, our first reaction is to try to find out who was responsible”, said Charly. “But I have learned that looking after the woman –not for the perpetrator—is the most urgent. Justice can come later.”
“‘Maman Charly’ has brought me peace in mind and strength”, said Josephine. “If I feel ‘strange things’ in my body, she can tell me what is going on. I can trust her. She made sure I took the medication right after being raped. Without her, I would be alone.”
When trying to rebuild their shattered lives, survivors of gender-based violence face many difficulties in Eastern DR Congo. Aside from the physical and emotional suffering, they often find themselves rejected by their husbands, banned by their own family, discriminated by their neighbours and in charge of the children left behind.
Sexual violence as a weapon of war
Being a pervasive human rights and public health problem across the country, sexual violence has been exacerbated by the conflict in Eastern DRC. Women and girls displaced due to fighting are particularly exposed to exploitation given their social and economic vulnerability.
“Before, women were raped when going outside the displacement site to fetch water or wood”, said Charly who has been living in the displacement site since 2007. “Now people get killed and looted inside this site, especially at night. We fled the violence in our community to come here as displaced people. Now we are fleeing the violence inside the site. Where should we go to be safe?”
In order to provide essential life-saving care to 15,000 women, girls, boys and men after a sexual assault through its partners, UNICEF requires $5,000,000 for the next 12 months, which could help 300 health facilities to provide quality medical care to survivors and 120 psychosocial support centres for emotional healing and support.
Getting their lives together again
Without support some women sink into deep depression and isolation while others, with the support of social networks and organisations like HEAL Africa, rebuild their lives. In Goma, UNICEF partner HEAL Africa helps them in many ways throughout the recovery process. Beyond medial and psychosocial care, women who have been raped have the opportunity to participate, together with other vulnerable women, in literacy classes and learn to sew, embroider, knit and weave baskets to regain self-esteem, share with others and learn a new skill. “Before, I felt lost and anxious. Giving birth to a child without a father was a lot of suffering”, said Madeleine* while cuddling her 3-month-old baby in front of her sewing machine. A few months ago, the 19-year-old survivor knew nothing about needles and thread. Now, the aprons and bags she produce are for sale at HEAL Africa shop. “One day, peace will come. Then I will go back to my village and start my tailoring business.” After a moment of hesitation, Madeleine added in a smile: “I also want to find a good husband and become a mother again.”