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Sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: on the hill, a haven of peace

03-09-2010 Feature

Like thousands of other women in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, young Madeleine was raped by armed men. Given the scale on which sexual violence is being perpetrated, local groups have set up counselling centres ("maisons d'écoute") where victims receive psychological care. Marie-Servane Desjonquères reports from South Kivu.

 
©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
 
Sixteen-year-old Madeleine in Kaniola, in Walungu region, South Kivu.    
     
 
©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
 
Chidren play outside the Mwirama Maison d'écoute or councelling centre in Walungu region, South Kivu. 
     
©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
 
Prosper Rwabishugi and Justine Munyere Nicana are psycho-social workers at the Mwirama councelling centre. 
     
©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
 
ICRC psycho-social staff in discussion with employees of the Mwirama councelling centre whose responsibility is to raise public awareness of sexual violence and assist its victims. 
     
©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
 
Léonard Mpinga (left), director of the Kaniola councelling centre, with a member of his staff. 
      

Madeleine, just turned 16, cradles her baby in her arms, a little boy whose unknown father raped his mother. Sweeping a hand around her, Madeleine declares, "Without this centre, I'd be dead." She was just 14 when an armed group attacked her village and carried her off." For a year I was their wife, " she murmurs.

A schoolgirl when she was abducted, Madeleine eventually returned to her village several months pregnant. "Everybody rejected me," she says in her native Swahili." They laughed at me. I was 'the wife of the enemy', the one no-one wanted, not even her own father. I came here to the centre because I wasn't well in my head – I ran away whenever people were around."

The counselling centre helped Madeleine find the strength to escape the stigmatization being inflicted on her at home. She now lives with a family in another area. Her financial situation is difficult since she has a child to feed and earns only 500 Congolese francs (half a US dollar) a day working in the nearby fields.

 Soft landing  

"I come here twice a week to help. I do it out of solidarity for my sisters and the people of my village." Prosper Rwabishugi works as a counsellor in Mwirama along with Justine Munyere Nicana and Jean-Claude Ntabaza, who runs the centre and began working to help the victims of sexual violence after his sister was abducted, raped and left to die, the unborn baby she was carrying perforated inside her.

The centre is in the middle of the hill-top village. Through the open door you can hear the laughter of frolicking children and the tinkling of goat bells. The centre's charges are first treated at the local hospital. Those who arrive in time – that is, at the most 72 hours after being raped – are given special anti-retroviral drugs to combat HIV.

For women who are unable or unwilling to return home, the house has a few rooms, sparsely furnished but comfortable. With a gorgeous view out over a landscape of extinct volcanoes, they can resume life one step at a time.

 Life on hold  

In this violence-racked part of the world, life is full of uncertainty and risk for women and girls. Rapes occur when armed men move through villages, but also when women are working in the fields or fetching water from sources sometimes far away.

Their trauma leaves psychological scars: sleeplessness, muteness, anxiety and psychosis. Then there is rejection by their family, their husbands and the whole village. "Torture, violence and rape are messages sent by the armed men to the entire community," says James Songa Abwe, who works for the ICRC's psychological and social support programme in Bukavu.

 Helping victims to help themselves  

Happily, there is no lack of success stories in these programmes. A former resident of the centre in Kaniola got married. Another, who had refused to wash and groom herself " because I'm worthless" , had found the will to return to work in the fields.

"Thanks to ICRC training, we have found ways to be of use," says Léonard Mpinga, who runs the Kaniola centre. "We do everything we can to help the victim find the resources within herself to overcome her trauma."

The men and women who carry out the arduous work of therapy at the centres live in the same violence-racked environment as the people in their care. Listening to a steady stream of descriptions of pain and anguish takes its toll. So from time to time they are invited by Jacques Caron, James Songa Abwe, Mamie Meniko and Marie-Jeanne Usa Lukusu from ICRC Bukavu to talk about the strains imposed by their work and to look together for solutions to specific problems. "A therapist can suffer greatly from a feeling of helplessness in particularly difficult cases," explains Caron. "We try to look together for a way out of the maze."

 Mixed teams  

Both men and women work at the Kaniola and Mwirama centres. "Sometimes a woman doesn't dare talk to another woman, "Léonard Mpinga explains." She's afraid the other will spread around what she tells her. At the same time, in our culture a female councellor can't talk to a man about problems such as conjugal difficulties caused by rape. It just isn't done. Then there's the fact that sometimes only a woman can find the words to comfort these victims. So we all play our own role. We're complementary."    

The Kaniola centre is a rustic house with dark rooms. But today they are lit up by Madeleine's presence. She is beginning to look and speak like an adult. "I don't have a fiancé, but when my son is bigger, I'll get married and meet life head-on. In the meantime, I wanted you to hear my story."