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VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
Helping Women Heal [Photos from the Field]
March 7, 2008
By The IRC
|Photo: Melissa Winkler/The IRC|
|In the Democratic Republic of Congo there is a war raging against women. Here, women and girls are victims of rape on a scale never seen before. Whenever violent conflict escalates in Congo, so do incidents of rape. It’s happening right now in the volatile province of North Kivu. Gunmen are entering homes and raping and torturing women in front of their families. Others are being snatched from their villages or farms during raids or attacked while collecting water or firewood. They are sometimes kept for days, weeks or even months at a time and subjected to repeated gang rapes, beatings, and mutilation. “Rape is used as a tactic by all the armed groups in Congo to terrorize communities and to control and humiliate families,” says Sarah Mosely (center), who oversees International Rescue Committee programs to aid rape survivors in Congo. “It’s sometimes hard to describe just how horrific these assaults are, but I can tell you that it’s not uncommon for women to be raped with sticks and bayonets that rip them apart or for men and boys to be forced at gunpoint to rape, stab and shoot their mothers, sisters and daughters. Before I came to Congo, I worked in Darfur aiding rape survivors. The situation is horrible there, but in terms of the frequency and the brutality of attacks, nothing compares to what’s happening to women and girls in Congo.” Photo: Bob Kitchen/The IRC “We were walking to the market when suddenly a truck stopped and a group of men started chasing us,” says Josephine (left, not her real name) recalling the day when she and her friends were attacked and raped by one of the militias that terrorize villages in eastern Congo. “We ran in all directions. I tried to hide in the forest, but three men caught up with me. I don’t know how long it lasted but when it was over, I wasn’t sure whether I would live or die.” Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC Tens of thousands of women and girls have suffered such attacks, leaving women and girls physically damaged and emotionally terrorized. Many victims are no longer able to bear children. Others end up suffering from fistula, a condition in which internal organs are so destroyed that the victims lose bowel and bladder control. Unfortunately, Congo’s war and ongoing conflict destroyed the health system in eastern regions, so there is a shortage of hospitals and clinics capable of treating rape survivors. And few can afford the medical help anyway. Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC A number of aid groups, including the International Rescue Committee, are working to change that and ensure that women and girls have access to critical medical and other needed support services. “Our approach is to bring the services to them so that they don’t have to trek for miles to get assistance,” says the IRC’s Sarah Mosely. “We make sure they can get fast quality care nearby, confidentially and in a dignified manner.” To do that, the IRC is rehabilitating health clinics in towns and villages and supplying them with the medicines and equipment they need to give urgent treatment to rape survivors. Health workers are trained to dispense antibiotics to prevent debilitating sexually transmitted infections, suture and bandage wounds, reset broken bones and give tetanus shots and emergency contraception. Photo: Melissa Winkler/The IRC For more serious cases, the IRC also works to improve services at regional hospitals and funds two medical facilities in the cities of Goma and Bukavu that specialize in fistula repair. Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC But getting proper medical care is only a first step toward recovery. There is tremendous stigma associated with rape in Congo. Victims are frequently shunned by family, husbands and community. Without a social network, women and girls become marginalized and isolated, which impacts their family life and their ability to work. IRC programs bring survivors together to share experiences and engage in educational activities that help them to recover and get back on their feet again. Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC Trained IRC counselors (right) provide individual emotional support and family mediation. They also work with communities to change attitudes – in particular – placing blame where it is deserved, rather than on victims. Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC After months of medical treatment and psychological assistance, Josephine is on the mend. With help from the IRC, she and her friends, also rape survivors, pooled their resources to buy a plot of land to harvest cassava, one of the staples in eastern Congo. “I get mad some times that these men go unpunished. I hope some day that will change,” says Josephine, as she peels a ripe cassava. “But for me, I am working on more important things. My house is broken and I am repairing it. I am growing food and feeding my children. I am getting on with my life.” Photo: Melissa Winkler/The IRC The Congo crisis is a forsaken one. A recent IRC mortality survey found that 5.4 million people had died within the last decade, making it the deadliest documented conflict since World War II. Yet few pay attention. People die quietly in remote villages and fields, out of world view. Women are raped by the tens of thousands but their cries go unheard. Funding for programs that aid survivors and work with communities to protect the most vulnerable are negligible in proportion to need. For information on ways to help, visit www.theIRC.org. Photo: Melissa Winkler/The IRC|