Sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: prevention and victim assistance

02-03-2009 Interview

Armed violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, especially in the provinces of North and South Kivu, includes widespread rape and countless other forms of sexual violence. Mirella Papinutto, head of the ICRC's psycho-social programmes in the country, talks about the activities conducted by the ICRC to prevent such violence and assist the victims.


  Goma. Mirella Papinutto during the distribution of food to displaced persons.    
 What is the ICRC doing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to prevent sexual violence and assist the victims?  

The ICRC strives to meet the overall needs of victims of sexual violence as it does those of victims of other forms of violence linked to the country's armed conflict. Their needs can be medical, psychological, social or economic – frequently, it is all four at once. Our response must therefore be multifaceted.

In North and South Kivu, for example, the ICRC supports some 30 counselling centres (maisons d'écoute) run by local associations, including two managed by the Red Cross Society of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It helps train volunteers and provides the centres with material assistance.

  ©CICR/W. Lembryk/cd-e-00448    
  Goma. A victim of sexual violence with her child.    

The ICRC also runs prevention and risk-reduction campaigns aimed at raising awareness among the authorities and within the community at large.

 What are these counselling centres and how do they work?  

The counselling centres are places where victims of violence and other forms of trauma can come and talk privately, far from the public eye, about what happened to them. The centres are staffed by local psycho-social workers in whom these victims feel they can confide and who can help identify their needs, find solutions to their problems and, if necessary, refer them to medical or other facilities. The centres also provide temporary shelter for victims who cannot go home, either because they would be in danger there or because their families would reject them.
The ICRC's response

  • Provision of post-rape kits: prophylaxis for HIV/AIDS (reduces the risk of contracting the virus if used within 72 hours), treatment against sexually transmitted diseases; HIV/AIDS and pregnancy tests, day-after pill, tetanus and hepatitis B vaccinations.
  • Training of medical personnel.

    Counselling centres
  • Refurbishing of counselling centres in order to improve the conditions for victims of sexual violence.
  • Provision of training, tools and vegetable and crop seed to local associations that run the centres, thereby helping to boost their agricultural production.

    Financial aid
  • Direct, individual emergency aid.
  • Economic support, for example to open small businesses.

  • Confidential bilateral contacts with the authorities in order to enlist their support in bringing an end to violations of the law.
  • Information sessions for weapon-bearers in order to raise their awareness of the provisions of international humanitarian law – including those relevant to rape and other forms of sexual violence – and remind them of their obligation to spare civilians at all times.
  • Information sessions for members of communities in order to raise their awareness of the social and medical consequences of sexual violence.

 How are the victims of sexual violence perceived by their communities and what can be done to facilitate their reintegration?  

Between 10 and 15 per cent of victims of sexual violence who seek help at ICRC-supported counselling centres have experienced rejection by their communities.

The first step towards reintegration is to help them rebuild their self-esteem and their sense of belonging. They have been humiliated, their dignity has been trampled and they often feel very much alone in their suffering. This feeling of solitude can lead to a breakdown in communication with those around them and act as a barrier to social relations. Strengthening their self-image is essential if they are to avoid becoming marginalized and are to recover their rightful place in society.

  ©CICR/W. Lembryk/cd-e-00450    
  Goma. A clinic for women who have suffered sexual violence.    

When a victim of sexual violence has been rejected, the ICRC approaches the person's family or community in an attempt to mediate. Thirty-two of the 57 people the ICRC assisted in this way between October and December 2008 have been able to return home and mediation is ongoing for the others. Some cases are particularly difficult to resolve, such as that of two women accused by their community of being " cursed. "

It is essential to involve communities – especially their leaders – in fighting against the stigmatization of victims of sexual violence and the prejudices that underlie such violence. This takes time: convincing people to acknowledge a victim's innocence often implies changing mentalities and breaking taboos.

 What psychological toll does this work take on those who do it and what kind of support do they get?  

Psycho-social workers hired by associations and health-care personnel working in medical facilities that assist rape victims often hear harrowing tales of immense suffering. This can be a source of trauma for them and trigger feelings of helplessness or powerlessness. Some conclude that their efforts are pointless and lose their motivation.
Facts and figures

  From October to December 2008, the 34 ICRC-supported counselling centres in North and South Kivu:
  • received 400 victims of sexual violence;

  • provided psycho-social counselling for these victims (two to five session per person) and for 90 other persons who had witnessed rape, massacres and other forms of violence;

  •   Some 30 victims whose stories were particularly appalling received direct assistance from the ICRC's team of four psychologists. Some 40 children who had been conceived during a rape and their mothers (13 of whom were minors) also received support.

      In addition, the ICRC:
  • undertook mediation in 60 cases with the aim of avoiding rejection of victims by their partners, families or communities;

  • referred 340 victims to medical facilities, including 135 within 72 hours.
At the same time, victims who seek help have high expectations, which are all the more difficult to satisfy as those who assist them are living in the same environment – one in which death and anguish are permanent features. It is not easy to relieve someone's pain when one is living in the same surroundings and experiencing the same emotions.

In order to keep up their morale, psycho-social workers hired by the counselling centres need to share their experiences, vent their feelings and express their emotions. Regular meetings are therefore held during which they can discuss their problems and trade stories. A team of ICRC psycho-social workers also meets with them as required to discuss difficult cases and the daily problems they encounter.

 Can you tell us a story that left a deep impression on you?  

There is no story that stands out more than another. All the stories I have heard in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are special. What strikes me most is the courage of these people and their will to go on living.

I am thinking of psycho-social workers who were rape victims themselves and who are determined to help other victims, of children who witnessed their mothers being raped – including three siblings whom we are still caring for three months later, and of teenage girls living in camps for displaced persons who were abducted and raped and who were at first filled with fear but who eventually learned to smile again.

These people ask themselves many questions about their future but they also find answers.

Above all, they have taught me an important lesson: how to face difficult problems head-on and how not to give up.