Congo´s women have been portrayed as victims in an endless war. HEAL Africa is working to build and support new communities of women in Africa who are empowered socially, physically, spiritually, and economically to create a new social fabric in communities that are torn apart by conflict. They are becoming a force for change in a different future for the Congo. In a fragmented postwar society, with many women living on their own, the traditional roles and structures have changed. Women are experiencing new responsibilities and are now recognizing that they have assumed new roles. This has led some groups of women to challenge a system they may never before have questioned. It has brought women together who have suffered the same issues: widowhood, rape, the need to support their children alone. Now they are discovering the strength they have in working together.
Central to Women Stand Up Together is the network of safe houses where women can find refuge and help in crisis and long-term support and resources as they work to build new communities after war. These houses are called Wamama Simameni (Women Stand Up Together) and are managed at the local level by the women they serve, linked to the staff of HEAL Africa in Goma. (see. “Thirst for Justice” story of Lubutu on the website).
The Women Stand Up Together safe houses are community-owned homes offering resources to all women in the community. They function as the center of a radiating network of initiatives that provide the framework of community, building capacity among women by educating, offering new resources such as income generating grants, teaching skills like learning to sew and make bread or soap, bringing other training and opportunities, and connecting them to vocational and agricultural improvements. Each house is staffed with trained counselors who work to find survivors of rape and other violence in need of medical treatment and refer them to the appropriate programs. Survivors pass through the houses on the way to the hospital in Goma for treatment or when traveling back home, healed. Women who are leaving the HEAL Africa hospital in Goma with a Fresh Start Kit, which includes the components for her to start a small business, will connect with the safe house closest to her village where she will receive support in building a new future for her and her family.
The houses become the entry points where communities can connect with other programs that network to build sustainable futures. Each house is the central meeting spot for counselors from the area to come, report, learn new skills, and encourage each other. Village counselors also know to refer to local medical clinics for infections, sexually transmitted diseases, or Post Exposure Prophyllaxis (PEP for HIV will dramatically reduce transmission of HIV if administered within 72 hours of a rape. Most villagers don’t know this, and it’s not available in many clinics out of the city.) HEAL Africa has been working with 67 rural clinics to provide training and medicine, and through the counselor networks to inform women and girls of the urgency of getting treatment quickly.
Members of a Women Stand Up Together home join together to form Solidarity Groups where they will support, educate, and encourage each other in their new community. Members of the groups are eligible to apply for micro-loans for start-up capital for a small business. Women whose micro-loans have been stolen are being helped by their solidarity groups; and according to a recent report from Goma, “Women are starting to recover trust and enter into the African system of sisterhood”. The rotating credit loans are being repaid in each of the centers who received income generation grants, and some groups have reimbursed two and three months’ worth.” Over 600 women are on the waiting list for the next round of micro-loans.
Each house also keeps some food on hand so that women who come for medical attention can be both sheltered and fed. The houses often maintain a small garden or a hutch of rabbits. These provide food when needed and can be a source of income. The house will have a space for meeting and learning, so village women can learn to sew, to read, to make bread or soap—skills that will help them in their daily tasks at home. The rooms at the back will provide extra space for storage, equipment and housing. There are also space and support for children at risk. Children’s Space works with children from disadvantaged homes and children who have been child soldiers, providing education and a safe place to play and learn new skills. For some of them, it is the first time someone has cared about them. For others, it is the first time in a long time that someone is thinking about their future.
Women Stand Up Together houses are central to HEAL Africa’s efforts to support and strengthen women in their own communities. When women are empowered, the whole community benefits. In Maniema and North Kivu Provinces there are currently 28 Women Stand Up Together houses that each belong to anywhere from 30 to 100 women. Each house costs $8000 to establish and $15 dollars a day to maintain with food, supplies, and a staff that includes counselors and security.
(Prepared by HEAL Africa)
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