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Sexual violence in the DRC: recognizing trauma to rebuild one's life

04-03-2010 Feature

All around the world, thousands of women suffer sexual violence every year. On the occasion of International Women's Day (8 March), two Congolese women talk about their suffering and about the hope and strength that enable them to move on.

©ICRC/ P Yazdi/v-p-cd-e-01036 
North Kivu, Congo. A victim of sexual violence talking to a psychosocial worker. 
©ICRC/ P Nepa 
Vumilia receiving counselling at a maison d'écoute
©ICRC/ P Nepa 
North Kivu, Congo. Clémentine having her prosthesis checked at the Heri Kwetu physical rehabilitation centre. 

Seeing Vumilia smile, it is hard to imagine what this 19-year-old must have been through. " I'd had quite a nice day at school. As I was walking home, two young men dragged me off the path and raped me. I struggled and screamed, but no-one helped me. From that moment on, my life was a nightmare. "

When Vumilia turned to her family for support she got another shock; her village had been attacked and her parents had fled. She was 14 years old at the time. Her life was in ruins and the teenager had no-one to turn to. She went to stay with her uncle. For months, she kept the rape a closely-guarded secret.

Antoinette is a psycho-social worker at a maison d'écoute (a rape counselling centre, literally a " listening house " ) in the North/South Kivu region. She well remembers the lost, haggard look on Vumilia's face when she turned up at the centre. " She was sad and defeated. She didn't want to talk about what had happened. She was ashamed to talk about her suffering and her problems. The brutality of the men, and the torture they inflict, leave rape victims crippled by their unspoken suffering. "

 Confronting stigma and fear  

This unspoken suffering remained with Vumilia for months, along with a heavy burden of shame and humiliation. Her relatives rejected her, pushing her down that little bit deeper into despondency. " My uncle chucked me out when he dis covered I'd been raped and that I was pregnant. I was completely on my own, in the worst circumstances you can imagine, until I came to the maison d'écoute . "

She had heard of the centre through an awareness-raising campaign in her village and decided to go along. There is an urgent need for medical care after rape, but also for a chance to talk about what has happened to someone who will listen and give support.

Vumilia found an ear that would listen, eyes that would not judge and hands that would console, not reject. Thanks to this support, she is gradually getting back on her feet.

 Escaping from silence to escape from suffering  

The ICRC is supporting over 30 maisons d'écoute in North and South Kivu, where rape victims can begin the process of psychological reconstruction. There, they are welcomed by psycho-social workers, some of whom have suffered sexual violence themselves. The staff refer women (and men) who need medical care to the appropriate agencies. These people are already vulnerable, and fear of rejection all too often prevents them from seeking the care that could limit the consequences of the attack.

Sexual violence is one of the rare crimes for which the victim can end up in the dock, isolated and rejected by the very community that should be giving support. In the company of psycho-social workers like Antoinette, victims finally tear off the gag of guilt and shame.

" After several sessions at the maison d'écoute , I began to become less ashamed, " explained Vumilia. " I could go to the market and look people in the eye. I could walk down the road without getting nervous. I know that wha t happened has changed me forever, but I also know that it wasn't my fault. I wasn't going to stay a victim all my life. I couldn't let this destroy me. "

 Taking back control of one's life  

Like Vumilia, Clémentine can now face others … and the future. But just a few months ago she thought nothing good could ever happen to her again. " It happened eight years ago. Armed men broke in late at night, looking for money. I didn't have any, so they got violent. They raped me and injured my leg. They killed my husband and they threw my week-old baby into the forest. "

Clémentine thought she was going to die as well. Overnight, she had become a pariah widow, a heartbroken mother and a cripple with no future. " I had to have one of my legs amputated. I was rejected and useless. Especially to myself. "

A (male) friend advised her to contact the ICRC-supported Heri Kwetu physical rehabilitation centre. " All of a sudden, I was visible again. There were people who looked after me. People who cared about what I needed. Nobody had done that for months. It was as if I'd been reborn again as myself. I was back in control of my life. "

For Clémentine, the first stage in regaining control was to learn to walk normally again, on an artificial leg. But social reintegration was also an important step. " Being raped had robbed me of everything: my husband, my dignity as a wife and mother and the support of my family. I was ashamed of being dependent on others. "

To break this dependency, the ICRC supports women who want to start up micro-businesses. Clémentine set up a grocer's. In doing so, she discovered capabilities she never knew she had. Buoyed up by her success as a grocer, she has just bought a piece of land, on which she is going to build not just a house but a new life. " They couldn't take my strength or my faith in life. And those are what help me move on, much more than this artificial leg. "