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Democratic Republic of the Congo: Charlotte’s smile

08-12-2008 Feature

Charlotte Tabaro is a psycho-social worker in one of the two centres that the Red Cross Society of the DRC has set up in the displaced persons’ camps at Kibati, near Goma. Charlotte has been trained by the ICRC to care for victims of the conflict, to listen as they tell of their suffering and to provide counselling. The counselling centres are known in French as “maisons d’écoute” – literally, “listening houses”. Here, suffering meets compassion and hope.

  ©ICRC/O. Miltcheva    
  Charlotte in front of the maison d’écoute in Kibati I camp, Kanyarutsinya.    
  ©ICRC/O. Miltcheva    
  A rape victim talks to Charlotte and another psycho-social worker.    

Watch the video: counselling rape victimes in DRC    

The Kibati I maison d’écoute is a modest little house, covered in plastic sheeting. The inside is as modest as the exterior, with a bare minimum of furniture: a table and two chairs. “Our maison d’écoute was looted during the fighting in October,” explains Charlotte. “We had to re-equip it in a hurry so we could start helping people again. There are so many who need us …”

The camps at Kibati are home to tens of thousands who have fled the fighting. Many have lost everything: their houses have been burned down and their property looted. But the material losses are nothing compared with the traumas that some have experienced. They have seen their families slaughtered in front of their eyes and have suffered attacks and violence of every kind. Many women tell of being raped by arms bearers.

“The first priority after a rape is medical care,” explains Charlotte. “A woman who has been raped must get to a health centre as quickly as possible. There are medicines that can prevent her contracting sexually transmissible diseases, including HIV/AIDS, as long as she takes them within 72 hours. But medicines can only treat the body. The victims of these attacks bear invisible, psychological wounds.”

There is a small room with a bed adjacent to Charlotte’s consulting room. “The victims are often exhausted by the time they reach us. Some are too traumatized to sleep, so we let them rest first. The real listening starts later. First they have to feel safe and at ease, and you have to win their confidence.”

"If we women can change the way our menfolk think, there’ll be fewer rapes in the DRC." 
Clotilde* is a shop-keeper in her fifties. She used to travel long distances to stock her little shop. Until the day an armed group attacked the minibus in which she was travelling. After robbing the passengers, the bandits raped all the women. But Clotilde’s suffering did not end there. When she got home, her husband rejected her because he was afraid of catching a sexually transmissible disease.

“We explained to her husband that medical tests showed she hadn’t picked up any infection. But above all, we helped him understand how deeply his rejection hurt her. Hadn’t she suffered enough already? He got the message. Clotilde comes back to see us regularly. She recently told us that now, for the first time in four months, she’s stopped having nightmares,” says Charlotte, all smiles.

  • The ICRC has been supporting the maisons d’écoute since 2005. Currently, the organization is supporting 34 such facilities in North and South Kivu, where the centres are run by local associations.

  • Psycho-social workers listen to the victims, counsel them, mediate between victims and their families and conduct community-awareness campaigns to combat rejection and stigmatization.

  • The majority of rape victims who come to the maisons d’écoute in search of help are women, but the number of men and boys is on the increase.    

“And then I remember the woman who was attacked while she was carrying her seven-month-old baby on her back. That gave her the strength to fight five armed men. She even managed to grab the gun off one of them and wound another in the face.

After being raped she fled, naked, and spent long hours hiding in a hole in the ground, under soil and dead leaves, before help came. When the armed men had gone, some kind souls returned to the scene of the attack and found her baby. I was there when this woman took her child in her arms and hugged him to her chest. The only thing that mattered right then was that she’d got her baby back. She was just so happy, even in the midst of her suffering.”

Members of the ICRC/Red Cross Society of the RDC psycho-social team come and talk to Charlotte every day. “I need to share the emotions I experience when I’m listening to these people. It’s a heavy load to bear on your own. Imagine, five to ten visits a day. Most are women, but there are little girls of five and six. I have six children of my own, and it’s the little ones that get to me the most. I often feel like crying, but I have to keep smiling for the sake of the people who come to me looking for strength, and a ray of hope.

I’m proud of my job, in spite of the pain it causes me. My ICRC training has made me aware of my rights as a woman and helped me to stick up for them in my own home. If we women can change the way our menfolk think, there’ll be fewer rapes in the DRC.”


* Not her real name