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Democratic Republic of the Congo: taming one’s fear, by helping others

22-05-2009 Feature

Mama Louise* was raped, together with her elderly mother and her three daughters. Ever since, she has devoted her time and energy to helping some of the countless Congolese women who have gone through the same ordeal.

   

  ©ICRC/VII/Ron Haviv/v-p-cd-e-00950    
 
  Minova. ICRC-supported Maison d'écoute or ''listening house". Mama Louise helps women who, like her, are victims of rape.    
     

During those days of February 2008, the armed men would come under the cover of darkness, sowing death and destruction in the string of villages whic h overlook Minova township and the blue waters of Lake Kivu. The family of 40-year-old Mama Louise started sleeping in the bush. “But then we began, carefully, to return home. This is how they found us.” The voice is hardly above a whisper, and Mama Louise, her diminutive figure immobile on a chair, carefully avoids looking at anyone.

The men began by asking for money. “Give the money, otherwise we will burn you.” Her husband tried to run away but he was instantly shot dead. Mama Louise was raped, next to his body. Her three daughters were raped in the house, while the children were screaming. Even her 81-year old mother was not spared.

 Between life and death  

“In the morning, people came. They took us to the ‘listening house’ in Minova, and from there we were brought to the hospital.” For 21 days, she was in a coma, suspended between life and death. Gradually, life returned, but with it the consequences of that dreadful time.

“Two of my daughters became pregnant as a result, and had babies. The husband of my eldest one rejected her.” So Mama Louise took in the baby, who now slumbers, comfortably tied to her back. In a society where the children of rape are often abandoned or even killed because they are considered to ‘carry a curse’, this was no mean feat.

But Mama Louise did not stop there. “Once I felt better, I decided I would help people who went through the same thing, as I was helped myself. As soon as I hear of a case, I go to the house, I explain to the woman what can be done for her, and I take her all the way to Minova. We come on market days, because this is when the mountain paths are safer.”

 Response to 'epidemic of rape'  

The ‘listening house’ where Mama Louise works – until recently without any salary – is one of many that have been set up all over Eastern Congo in recent years. This was the response of civil society, mainly of women’s associations, to the ‘epidemic of rape’ that has engulfed the region over the past 15 years in the wake of countless conflicts. The ICRC supports 34 listening houses in North and South Kivu.

   
  ©ICRC/VII/Ron Haviv/v-p-cd-e-00931    
 
  Minova. A counsellor listens to a rape victim at an ICRC-supported Maison d'écoute or "listening house".    
     

In these modest structures, victims find counsellors who listen to them, bringing both material and psychological support. A small room offers beds to rest, and post-rape kits are available on the spot or at a nearby hospital. If administered within 7 2 hours, the drugs minimize the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV-AIDS.

Rebuilding a woman’s self-esteem is a longer and much more arduous endeavour, which takes months at a minimum. Often, mediators have also to go and explain to husbands and other members of the family that rejecting the woman is both senseless and cruel. When they do not succeed, the listening house offers a longer-term shelter to the woman and, sometimes, to her offspring.

Today, Mama Louise is taking three recent victims to hospital. They wait shyly on the breathtakingly beautiful slopes around the village while Mama Louise tells their stories. “Two of them were attacked last Saturday, the last one on Monday. One is 18 and was picking sweet potatoes in the field when two armed men raped her. She could not move afterwards, and her family found her at night, still lying there. They brought her to me and I told her not to worry, I will take her to where she can get help.”

The incidents are frequent and never far from her own home, which lies in an isolated hamlet surrounded by fields of beans and sorghum. But Mama Louise never mentions the fear that must grip her at night, when the ghosts of her own recent tragedy stalk the hills.

What makes her happy? Mama Louise slowly ponders the question: “In the beginning, I had such physical pain and dizziness. I used to feel so weak. I thought I would never recover my health. But helping these other women, the more I do it, the stronger I feel. Since last May, I have helped 67 women. And also seeing that my daughters are doing better, this makes me happy.”

    

 *Not her real name