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Democratic Republic of the Congo: "I want my child and me to be accepted"

02-03-2007 Feature

A group of South Kivu women who were abducted by armed groups, raped and mistreated are struggling to survive and to protect their children born of sexual violence. ICRC delegate Fabienne Garaud talked to one of them.

   

  ©ICRC/W. Lembryk/cd-e-00420    
 
  Goma. Female victims of sexual violence in the Clinique Cepac Cashero.    
    On the morning of 20 February 2007 we had arranged to meet with some members of a local NGO operating out of Bukavu so that they could introduce us to a group of women who had been victims of sexual v iolence. The association held literacy classes for these women and helped them to reintegrate into the community by means of micro-credit projects.
 
After winding our way for an hour through the beautiful hills of South Kivu, we arrived at our meeting point in Kabare. For greater privacy, we decided to talk with the women inside the wooden hut used for the literacy classes. Only six women were there today. The others were either busy in the fields or tending the little shops they kept as a means of eking out a living for their children and themselves.
 
I was immediately struck by these women's youth. There was Jeannette (20), Claudine (19), Namafu (18), Apolline (20), Nafranka (19) and Kiriza, who didn't know how old she was and seemed lost, even slightly retarded. She was feverishly holding her eight-month-old baby, who showed signs of malnutrition.
 
To get a better idea of what they had been through, I spoke with each of them in turn, using Léon, a member of the association who had gained their trust, as my interpreter.
 
The stories of these women were sadly alike. But the tale told by Namafu, the youngest of the group, was the one that left the deepest impression on me, doubtless because it was the most horrendous.
 
A beautiful young girl with a childlike face which she kept hidden under a black headscarf, Namafu was nervous, embarrassed and hesitant to speak. I sat down beside her on a low stone wall and looked at her with sympathy. As a woman, I felt a bond of solidarity with her, as if I could have the slightest idea what she had endured. I was far from imagining how dreadful her experience had been.  
 
  ©ICRC/W. Lembryk/cd-e-00425    
 
  Bukavu, Panzi hospital. Female victim of sexual violence and her child waiting to see a psychologist.    
    In 2001, some armed groups had come to plunder the village of Kabare, about 20 kilometres from Bukavu. They abducted several village girls, including Namafu – who was 12 years old at the time – to help them carry off their loot. Namafu remained a prisoner for four hellish months during which she was used as a " sex slave " and repeatedly raped. However, she never lost her instinct for survival. One day, as she was going to fetch water at the river, she decided to flee. Casting her bucket on the ground, she ran for her life, deep into the heart of Biega National Park.
 
When she had returned to her village, her family was overjoyed to see that she was still alive and they welcomed her home. Many families would have behaved differently.
 
Namafu’s hands trembled and she stopped speaking. In the heavy silence that ensued, she twisted her veil and lowered her head, still ashamed of what had happened to her. Then sh e started up again.
 
" In 2005 some other armed groups came back to abduct more village girls and once again I was forced to go with them into the forest. I stayed with them for a month and then I managed to escape again. "
 
When she returned home she discovered she was pregnant. (At the time we spoke, her little boy had just turned one.) In her misfortune, she was lucky enough not to have contracted any sexually transmissible diseases.
 
I asked Namafu what kind of help she expected and she replied: " I want people to accept me and my child and not to treat me like a rebel's wife. I want to be given a chance to find a husband. "
 
I glanced down at her feet and saw that she was fidgeting with her sandals. Her calloused toes and split nails spoke of the hard work she did in the fields. Yet despite everything she had endured, she remained optimistic. " With the association's help, I hope to start up a small business selling beer, " she said. " If things go well, I could earn 12 dollars a week. "
 
Prejudices and rumours have destroyed so many families and dashed so many hopes for a new beginning. Not only are these victims of rape rejected by their own families, but they are also considered impure by the community. And yet their only sin is to have been born women in a country where rape is a crime that, in practice, still goes unpunished.