Generations: Meet an extended "family" of women looking out for each other in Congo
August 2, 2013 by Aisha Bain
|The IRC trains counselors and provides support to community-based organizations to help women in war-torn eastern Congo heal their bodies, minds and spirits. Photo: Aisha Bain/IRC|
“I want you to tell our story,” Justine* says with fierce determination. Justine is a leader of a community-based women’s organization that the IRC has worked with for about 10 years. I sat with her and her family in the back of their house in their village in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. “This is who we are,” she says, nodding to Samira, the elder. Samira has large rummy eyes and a shaved head covered with white stubble, and believes she is maybe 69 years old.
“My life when I was a little girl, I don’t know anymore,” Samira begins. “I never knew my parents. Religious sisters took me in. I was married when I was 16, gave birth to a daughter, and soon my husband took other wives. The war in 1967 killed my husband, and because I only had a daughter, the sons of the other wives came and destroyed my house and made me leave. We were poor and had almost nothing. My daughter gave birth to girl, and then my daughter died.” Her voice trails off and she stares into the distance.
“That child was me,” Maombi continues the story, smiling at her grandmother. Maombi, 24 years old, is a beautiful woman with high cheekbones and bright, sincere eyes. She holds her sleeping infant daughter as she speaks. “When I saw 15, they took me into the forest,” she says softly. “The armed men kept me there for almost a year, forced me to be their wife, and only let me go when I was big with a child. When I came out of the forest, I was alone and scared. Justine found me, took me in, and the group of women here helped me.”
Justine continues, “I am one of the psychosocial assistants trained by the IRC who provides counseling to women who experience this kind of pain,” she says. “We banded together to help these and other women, and the IRC kept working with us, and continued all kinds of training, support and assistance.”
Justine speaks passionately about the intense isolation abandoned women encounter, and the help the IRC provides. “Women and communities know we are here, and we know things have changed because they come forward to get help. Even fathers bring their daughters now. It is through health care, counseling, and just being there for them that we help to heal their bodies and minds and spirits—it is the only way we move forward.”
The way forward, Justine continues, means teaching modern farming techniques, supporting community farms, organizing savings and loans programs and adult literacy programs—all with the IRC’s support. “We do advocacy to change the position of women and girls in our community,” she says.
Justine extends her arms toward Maombi and Samira. “These women are my family—she is my grandmother and she is my daughter. In Congo, blood does not matter. You are family if you take care of each other. And, you see, we have force, but we don’t have power.”
But they are fighters, says Justine. “Do not feel sorry for us. Stand beside us. You who have access to authorities in other countries, we ask that you ask them to stop the war in Congo.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of survivors of violence.
A new hope for women who survive violence in Congo - An IRC counselor's perspective on a new form of therapy that brings women together to heal.
Finding redemption in the world's 'rape capital' (CNN) - Acclaimed photojournalist Lynsey Addario's photo essay shows how, with the IRC's help, women in villages in South Kivu have moved on from their oppressive pasts to support each other and financially support themselves.
Transforming Lives, Transforming Futures: Women In Congo Rise From The Violence (Buzzfeed) - Aisha Bain blogs about women standing together not as victims, not as survivors, but as teachers – asking to be heard, demanding change in Congo.
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