International Medical Corps has worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 1999, providing health care, nutrition, food security, gender-based violence prevention and treatment, and water and sanitation services. The prolonged conflict in the DRC is characterized by extreme violence, mass population displacements, widespread rape and collapse of social services. Rape and sexual violence is pervasive in eastern Congo and exists in many forms. Often used as a weapon of war, armed militia and military rape and brutally terrorize women as a way to humiliate families and communities.
Unfortunately, there is still a great deal of social stigma that is attached to the survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in the DRC. The stigmatization of survivors can lead to them being shunned by their families and the community as a whole, often leading to survivors being chased from their own homes. Being rejected from the community often puts young mothers in a very dire situation that can become life threatening when they find themselves homeless and without any means of supporting themselves and their children.
International Medical Corps is applying a holistic approach to combat this problem by providing medical and psychosocial support the survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, while also working to modify the way communities view survivors of rape, which helps deter future attacks and accelerate the recovery of survivors. Below is a story of a courageous young woman who was able to rebuild her life after a very traumatic event with the help of International Medical Corps’ livelihood programming in DRC:
The International Medical Corps trained Kalonge psychosocial team first met Aisha in 2012 Aisha (*Aisha is not her real name and it was changed for her anonymity). She had walked 50 miles from her home in Ninja to escape the fighting and seek help after her ordeal in the hands of a group of armed men.
“I was inside my house with my husband and children. It was the night of March 21, around 9:30 pm. It was common during those days for armed groups to come into the village to steal and rape women and girls. We lived in constant fear of our lives.”
“As we sat with my family, the door suddenly burst open. Three armed men entered the house. They ordered us all to lie down and started tying up my husband’s hands and legs with ropes because he had tried to resist them. While they were tying him up, I screamed hoping neighbors would come and rescue us. They beat me up and said that if I screamed again, they would kill me and then kill my husband. This was enough to silence me. I was afraid that we were going to die. The three armed men proceeded to rape me in turns. They then asked my husband to show them where the money was. They gathered everything including our goats. When they had finished, they came back into the house and asked me to lie still on the ground. They called my children who had escaped to the next room and asked them to surround me and one of the men attempted to rape me in front of my children. My husband started screaming and one of the soldiers killed him.”
“The next morning at my husband’s funeral, I narrated the story to my mother in law who happened to have suffered the same ordeal in a different village. Three days after the incident, my mother in law and I decided to relocate to Kalonge. I was worried because we did not know anyone in Kalonge but I was determined to leave my home to forget all that had happened.”
International Medical Corps has trained many of the staff members at the Kalonge hospital and also built several health centers that offer services to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Adding to the provision of healthcare services, International Medical Corps also supports livelihood programs that help sexual and gender-based violence survivors become self-reliant by teaching them a trade, such as making a product that they can sell at local markets. International Medical Corps’ holistic approach to the problem of sexual and gender-based violence in DRC, and especially Kalonge, has created a network that can help a rape survivor at all stages in their recovery.
“Upon arrival in Kalonge, my Mother-in-Law and I reached a health center and I decided to get help because I was not feeling well. At the health center, I told the midwife what had happened and she directed me to where a woman who could help us was located. This woman took us to a community center where we received clothes, soap and food for one week. I met another woman who talked to me and gave me advice and helped me to gradually learn that I had hope even after all that had happened to me. The women also helped us to get someone to give us a place to stay. I continued to come to the community center because I could find help there. There are many times when I did not have the courage to look at someone in the face. My heart could start pounding and I could start crying when I remembered what happened back in my village. As I continued to go to the community center and receive more help from the women there, I gradually became stronger. I found the courage to join other women in the activities in the center.”
“During these sessions, I made friends and found out that some of them had gone through the same thing, but they had gained renewed hope. The woman who met me the first time continued to invite me to her office to talk more about the progress that I was making. She even came to visit me in my home. Of course I was still going through difficult times. My husband had been the sole breadwinner and now I have no one to support me and my children. I had no land to cultivate or a business through which I could make money to buy food. I struggled to feed my children and my mother in law with the little assistance from the community center.
“In September, my mother in law died and I was left alone with my children. Life became so difficult that I could hardly feed my children. To add to this, the house that community members had given us to stay in was destroyed by heavy rain. I was forced to seek refuge in a church. I went back to the community center, but this time, I was trained on how to start a business and given materials to start the small business of selling cassava flour. It has been 5 months since I started a stall at the local market. I am able to feed my children and myself. I have also been able to repair the house that was destroyed by the rain. I have the courage to laugh and even burst into laughter. I have hope to continue living and I am even thinking of returning to Ninja, back to my village.”
“I am thankful for the support that I was given by the people at the community center and all the support I received from International Medical Corps. I have the courage and the will to live despite the difficulties. I encourage the women to continue supporting other women who went through the same thing like me. Don’t give up. Thank you.”
International Medical Corps prioritizes reproductive health services and family planning in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gynecological and obstetric care is especially important in this area where 98% of all obstetric complications result from either sub-par medical care or rape. By increasing the quality and availability of reproductive and maternal health care, as well as the uptake of these services, International Medical Corps has significantly improved long-term health outcomes for women and children in DRC. Our goal is to save the lives of mothers by providing the care they need before a medical emergency arises.
Safe Motherhood through CycleBeads:
Faida, also known as Mama Sammy, is 25 years old and has been married to her husband Sammy since 2010. She lives in the village of Kabusa, located in the Walikale territory in Eastern DRC. Over the course of two years, she suffered a devastating loss after experiencing two miscarriages. The suspected cause was poor spacing between her pregnancies. This is her story:
“I gave birth to a baby and got pregnant after three months. As I was trying to keep the pregnancy and take care of the child, the first one passed away. I also miscarried the second one ... I was astonished and stressed because I could not understand the situation.
I discussed with my husband who was also concerned about the loss of our two babies and was worried about the opinion of the community. We decided to try to avoid frequent pregnancies, but my husband never wanted medications or any chemicals. So, we tried the natural way on our own but with many worries because we had no tools for counting.
I convinced my husband to consult the medical Director of Kabusa Health Clinic and follow prenatal consultation as advised by my mother because she trusted the midwife trained at Kabusa.
We luckily meet Mr. Ngoko Lipanda Andree, the medical director of the clinic. He explained to us several methods of family planning that we could use to avoid the risks of death of the child and the mother. One of these options was CycleBeads® which my husband really liked. It was a natural option we both appreciated.
Since we started using the method we have never experienced unwanted pregnancies.
We now enjoy life with our 1 year and 3 month old baby without any more worries.”
Note on CycleBeads® and The Standard Days Method®:
"The Standard Days Method® is a fertility awareness-based family planning method that identifies a fixed fertile window for women with cycles that are between 26 and 32 days long. For women with cycles in this range, the method identifies days 8 through 19 as potentially fertile days. A user simply tracks the start date of her period and the days of her cycle to know if she is on a day when pregnancy is possible or not.
Researchers at the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University developed this family planning method and tested it in large-scale clinical trials. It is proven to be more than 95% effective at preventing pregnancy and with the right tools, is very easy to use.
If a woman wants to prevent pregnancy using this family planning method, then she should avoid intercourse or use a back-up birth control method such as condoms during her fertile days (days 8-19). The patented CycleBeads® tools help a woman use this method by tracking her cycle, identifying her fertile and non-fertile days based on when her period started, and confirming that her cycles are in range for effective use of this family planning method. (Source: www.cyclebeads.com)"
Blandine Butundi, 18 years old and expecting, was suffering from a life-threatening pregnancy complication.
“My first three months of pregnancy were the heaviest weight I carried since I was born …. the midwife of our Mundindi Health Clinic advised me to consult a doctor in Walikale [the regional capital]. I felt very heavy, yet I was only three months along.
One day I felt dizzy and collapsed at the house door. I was rushed to Walikale General Hospital on a motorbike, not knowing which world I was in. My heart was beating so fast and I felt very thirsty. I was sweating heavily. In the consultation room the midwife just said: ‘You are a lucky lady, you met the specialist in women’s care.’ It was Dr. Kennedy [head of obstetric surgery].
I was given an injection, and the only thing I remembered was the doctor telling me: ‘Something is wrong Blandine, we have to remove whatever is inside your stomach before serious damages occur.’ The rest of the story I was told by my mother.”
Blandine had suffered a miscarriage, and she needed surgery or would face infection and possible death. Thanks to the intervention of Dr. Kennedy Musavuli, she will soon be able to return home in good health. Dr. Kennedy, who received training in emergency obstetrical care and fistula care from International Medical Corps, was able to diagnose the miscarriage and conduct the necessary surgical procedure that saved Blandine’s life.
“The training we received with the support of International Medical Corps shaped our knowledge and experience much more,” said Dr. Kennedy. “Personally, I am so thankful to International Medical Corps for health support in many ways.”
Blandine is also thankful for the support of the skilled surgeons, and expects to return home from the hospital in the upcoming days.
“I have nothing to give to this doctor,” she notes. ”He is such a blessing to the Walikale people, a person who does things with his heart. If he was not there… I was already dead, my mother said. Now I am feeling like a normal person and I hope soon I will get back to my house.”
As part of its safe motherhood initiative, International Medical Corps trained surgical staff from the general hospitals at Walikale and Chambucha,located in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, in emergency obstetric surgery to address health issues such as Blandine’s.
In Blandine’s home territory of Walikale, International Medical Corps also recently organized trainings for frontline healthcare workers, such as the midwife in Mundindi who referred Blandine to a doctor, to recognize danger signs during pregnancy, ultimately benefiting over 33,000 women in the area.
International Medical Corps’ two Reproductive Health Complexes in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are equipped to provide the highest level of gynecological and obstetric surgical care. Located in Chambucha and Kalonge, this project has helped to improve the health and well-being of 70,000 women of child-bearing age.
A strong stigma surrounds gender-based violence (GBV), which prevents many women from going to a health facility to avoid drawing attention to their situation. Less than 1% of rape victims arrive at a health facility within 72 hours of the attack, making it difficult to prevent sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS with post-exposure prophylaxis, and reducing chances of preventing pregnancy with emergency contraception.
International Medical Corps’ project helped address these needs by establishing a well-equipped facility in accessible locations that are staffed by trained, qualified medical personnel who can now provide a wide range of maternal and reproductive health services, including prenatal and postnatal care, emergency obstetric care, fistula and other gynecological surgeries, clinical care for sexual assault survivors, and education and counseling on family planning and other reproductive and maternal health issues. In coordination with the provincial government, International Medical Corps has successfully trained 171 health workers in primary health care, pregnancy risk, family planning and reproductive health, and emergency obstetrical care. With these skills, they will not only provide treatment but also prevent the development of complex reproductive health problems.
International Medical Corps also strengthened 65 health facilities in order to provide quality healthcare to GBV survivors, while 460 medical and paramedical service providers were trained in evidence-based clinical care for sexual assault survivors.
To promote women’s rights and protection at the community level, International Medical Corps supported the creation of four Gender Task Forces in accessible health areas in the project area. The task forces carried out monthly meetings with International Medical Corps’ guidance to find solutions to identified practices that increase vulnerabilities to GBV, and improve awareness and suggest actions to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality. The traditional birth attendants in these communities supported by International Medical Corps took a strong lead in the task force activities.
International Medical Corps continues to be committed to improving the lives of women and children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We thank you for your continued commitment, as well.
Over the last two years, International Medical Corps has built two Reproductive Health Complexes in Kalonge and Chambucha, the first facilities of their kind to provide fistula repair. The complexes serve over 70,000 women.
Over 98% of all fistulas (gynecological ruptures) in DRC are caused by a lack of proper obstetric care. Indeed, every pregnancy carries some risk: 15% of all pregnancies have a life-threatening complication requiring emergency obstetric care. Access to qualified medical facilities and care is crucial for all pregnant women, as they are susceptible to preventable disease, disability, and death. The success of emergency maternal and reproductive medical interventions relies as much on well-equipped facilities and well-trained personnel as it does on timeliness. At the Reproductive Health Complexes, women can get the proper care to prevent and treat fistulas and other obstetric complications.
In addition to general reproductive health care at the two Reproductive Health Complexes, women can also seek treatment for sexual gender-based violence. 1,762 sexual gender-based violence survivors received care at 65 supported health facilities, and 842 survivors were provided with post-exposure prophylaxis. The stigma surrounding sexual gender-based violence is strong, and often prevents women from going to a health facility for care as they want to prevent drawing attention to their situation.
International Medical Corps' efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo would not have been possible without your help. We thank you for your generosity as we continue our focus on women in the DRC, and we welcome your continued support.
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Resource Development Officer