International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Making sure women who left everything behind still have their dignity

When Jacqueline* and her two teenage daughters abruptly fled their village last fall because of fighting in North Kivu province, they managed to take but a pair of cooking pots and a small rug to sleep on. Since then, they have been forced to move several times among the informal camps sprouting up on the outskirts of Goma, the provincial capital near Congo’s border with Rwanda. They have had to sleep under the open sky, in makeshift tents, and on the cement floor of a school with hundreds of other displaced people, never feeling safe or enjoying the least bit of privacy.

Jacqueline and her daughters had no money to buy new clothes. They were able to wash their dresses once every two weeks, covering themselves in scraps and hiding while their clothing dried. Every month during menstruation, with no access to personal products like sanitary napkins, they couldn’t even attend to daily tasks.

Their situation is hardly unique. Scared for their lives and often without a place to go, women and girls in Congo flee their homes empty-handed. On the road, they have little opportunity to practice basic hygiene and are exposed to infection from wearing wet clothing continuously. The fact that for several days a month they cannot move about freely compromises their ability to search for food and fetch water—in short, their ability to survive.

“We felt very uncomfortable, always in the same clothes and not being able to wash properly,” Jacqueline says. “We really wanted new pagnes, but could not buy them.”

Pagne, the brightly colored, waxed cotton fabric that women make into dresses and head coverings, costs at least $12 at local markets, a sum Jaqueline could not contemplate. Her daily expenses, which she spends exclusively on food, rarely exceed one American dollar, and only when she is lucky enough to get an odd job.
A displaced Congolese woman smiles as she looks at the flashlight from her kit
To reduce the risks women face at night, the IRC kits supply them with flashlights and multiple sets of batteries, as well as whistles to blow in case they find themselves in danger.

Photo: Sinziana Demian/IRC
Relief finally came when Jacqueline was told she would receive an emergency kit for women. Purchased and delivered by the International Rescue Committee with funding from Stichting Vluchteling and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the kits provide women and girls with a range of personal items that support their dignity and safety.
High-quality pagne, as well as several sets of underwear and underskirts, ensure that wet clothes no longer need be worn the same day they are washed. An extra bolt of cloth, cut into small reusable strips, helps during menstruation. Bars of soap and two buckets, one for washing clothes and another for personal hygiene, simplify the everyday tasks women must fulfill when caring for their families—allowing everyone to wash herself and her clothing in private rather than risking physical or sexual attack at the communal and unprotected creek banks.
Finally, to reduce the risks that women and girls face at night, the IRC kits supply them with flashlights and multiple sets of batteries, as well as whistles to blow in case they find themselves in danger.
Jacqueline and other displaced women are ecstatic about the emergency kits, rejoicing that they no longer “need to hide during those days,” and that from now on they can be clean and dry. “We didn’t really know what to expect, but this is better than what we hoped for,” says Jacqueline. “You gave us what we needed the most.” 
So far, 4,400 women and girls in five camps and transit sites have received the kits; 8,000 more are slated for distribution in the coming weeks.  See more photos.>>
*Not her real name
The IRC in Congo
In conflict-afflicted eastern Congo, the IRC is responding to the vast needs of displaced and returning families. Learn more.>> 

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