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Sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: a story of resilience

25-11-2009 Feature

Marie, a 22-year-old Congolese woman, has suffered long-term sexual abuse. She is now trying to rebuild her life thanks to the ICRC programme of psychosocial and economic support in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Marie's story is told by Nadine Puechguirbal, ICRC adviser on women and war.

©ICRC / W. Lembryk /cd-e-00450 
Goma, North Kivu. The Cepac Cashero clinic for victims of sexual violence. 

©ICRC/VII / R. Haviv /cd-e-00932 
Kibati camp, North Kivu. A psychosocial worker listens to a rape victim at a counselling centre. 

©ICRC / W. Lembryk /cd-e-00446 
Goma, North Kivu. Rape victims do everything they can to protect children they bear as a result of their ordeal. 

We have often talked about the psychosocial workers in North Kivu who, with very few resources, do tremendous work in the maisons  d'écoute – counselling centres for rape victims. We have often talked about the victims and recounted their ordeal, with its endless train of untold suffering. And then, in the midst of these painful accounts of terror, brutality and torture, shines a ray of light: a story of resilience, showing us the impact of the ICRC's psychosocial programme.

The story belongs to Marie,* a 22-year-old woman from North Kivu. While at the market one day with her father, she was abducted by members of an armed group roaming the region. She was 10 years old at the time. Powerless before the armed men, Marie's father had to let her go. She was taken to a military camp and handed over to a commander as a sex slave. At the time, she says, her only wish was to die. She bore three children and suffered gynaecological complications as a result of being forced to have sex. One day, the commander was killed in the fighting, leaving the young girl alone with the children. His replacement granted Marie permission to leave the camp, but made her sign a document stating that the deceased commander's family would come for the children once the war was over.

 Determined to pull through  

Marie returned to her family, but was quickly shunned, as her children were " born of the enemy. " At 20 years of age, she was alone and unable to make ends meet, with three children in her care. S omeone agreed to put her up in exchange for labour in the fields. Through a community-awareness campaign, she found out about the maisons  d'écoute . She went to one such centre, in search of someone to listen to her story. According to the psychosocial workers who met her, Marie was sad, withdrawn and obviously suffering. She was working in the flour industry at the time, but earning practically nothing. The team at the maison d'écoute gave her counselling, a service offered to all rape victims who wish to have it. Then the ICRC began providing her with economic support to help her along the road to self-sufficiency.

Marie is now able to provide her children with two meals a day, and her eldest, an eight-year-old boy, has started going to school. She wants her two daughters (aged six and three) to receive an education too, and will send them to school as soon as she has the money. Marie is determined to pull through; she has set priorities for her life and, within a few years, she hopes to be able to purchase and manage a field of her own. Her family has restored contact with her; her father has insisted that his " heathen " grandchildren be baptized.

Marie is clothed in a piece of brightly coloured fabric, a gift from the team of ICRC psychosocial workers in Goma. A smile lights up her face and the brightness of her eyes shows how far she has come. She does not complain about her fate, saying instead that she has turned a new page: " you never forget what you've been through, but you accept it. " Marie is moving on with her life; she has put the past behind her to live in the present. Her story is one of great resilience.

 *Real name not used  

Sexual violence is a "major fear"
According to an ICRC survey about the impact of conflict on civilians conducted earlier this year in the DRC, 36% of those interviewed say ‘sexual violence’ is a major fear. This is an exceptionally high figure compared with the results obtained in the other seven countries where a similar survey was carried out. Fear of sexual violence is higher among women than among men – but certainly not confined to women alone (the respective figures are 43% women, 28% men). Other common concerns include losing a loved one (54%) and economic hardship/losing one's livelihood (40%).