Helping Women Heal in Congo
The surrounding hills are green and lush, like most of this part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Joséphine is a member of a small farming cooperative and this is their first crop.
“The soil here is rich,” she says, smiling. “This will give us enough to eat and sell in the market. It feels good to earn an income. My husband also sees me as contributing to the family. I’ve accomplished a lot.”
Not long ago, farming or earning a living would have been unthinkable for Joséphine.
Two years ago, she was attacked, raped and left for dead by one of the armed militias that terrorize this central African country.
“I was on the way to the market with friends,” Joséphine says. “Suddenly men started chasing us. We ran in different directions, but we were caught. Later, the attackers came to our village and looted everyone’s home.”
Since 1998, Congo has been enveloped by civil war and violence. Internationally recognized surveys by the IRC have counted nearly four million Congolese dead from war-related causes. Despite attempts to broker a peace, an IRC survey found that 38,000 people continue to die every month.
Rape is used as a weapon in war and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women are sexually assaulted every day. Attacks on women are rampant throughout the country, but eastern Congo, where Joséphine lives, is the cruelest war zone, says Karin Wachter, the IRC’s regional technical advisor on gender-based violence. “Even as the conflict inches towards an end, women and girls continue to be the targets of sexual assault,” says Wachter. “When a village is raided, women are often abducted.”
In 2003, the IRC established a program to support survivors of the attacks. By February 2006, the IRC had counseled 15,000 such women. To help survivors recoverfrom their experience, the IRC is training over 40 local groups to provide support services such as medical care, trauma counseling and community and family mediation.
The groups also help people find work and start businesses. Because victims of sexual violence are often stigmatized, the IRC works hard to raise community awareness about their situation. The IRC is also training and supporting an association of lawyers that is helping rape survivors in their effort to bring their attackers to justice. Despite the fact that militias act with near impunity, some progress is being made.
“Nearly 20 accused rapists have been brought to court,” says Sylvestre Bisimwa, who heads a rape victims’ legal association in the town of Bakavu. “It is a start. The perpetrators must learn that they can and will be punished for these crimes.”
A few months after her attack, Joséphine met with a group of IRC-trained counselors in her village. The counselors also met with Joséphine’s husband, who blamed himself for not preventing the attack on his wife.
“I needed advice,” Joséphine says. “They talked to us about what had happened and they convinced my husband to come with me to a clinic for medical treatment.” After months of medical treatment and psychological support, Joséphine says her emotional scars began to fade. She was ready to get on with her life. With the support of an IRC grant, she started a small business growing and selling cassava. Then Joséphine and two friends, also rape victims, pooled enough money to buy a small plot of land.
Joséphine and her friends hope that all rapists and war criminals will be punished one day. But for now, they focus on the struggle of daily life. “I want to rebuild my broken house and make sure our children can eat and stay in school,” she says. “And I want to grow more cassava.”