Lucienne, a victim of rape in the DR Congo, is a single mother of three daughters. Lucienne's husband was away when men entered her home in December 2006.
Lucienne describes the horror that happened next: "When we got to the bush, they pulled me down to rape me in front of my brother...As he hid his face in shame, they struck him with a gun and pulled him away to kill him."
Lucienne spent three-and-a-half months as a sex slave, becoming pregnant with a child.
Upon return to her village, Lucienne's husband shunned her from the community. Lucienne needed help, and she came to Women for Women International. Lucienne reflects that, "Joining the program has been a salvation...my life has changed and my children are healthy. I recovered confidence through the [Women for Women International] training."
Women Hold the Key to Peace and Prosperity in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Women for Women International is a global, grassroots women’s organization that provides women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts with the tools and resources they need to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency. Since 1993, Women for Women International has served over 271,000 women worldwide and distributed over $89 million in direct aid, program services and micro-credit loans. Women for Women International currently has field operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Rwanda, Nigeria, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Women for Women International – Democratic Republic of Congo (WfWI – DRC) launched its program operations in 2004 in response to the systematic and widespread use of rape as a weapon of war in one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II. Over 200,000 women and girls have been raped since the conflict started in 1996. The Congolese conflict has increased insecurity, criminality, violence and poverty, creating one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of all time. Women for Women International believes that without the active participation of women and the incorporation of women’s perspective at all levels of decision making, the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved. Thus, our year-long program offers socially excluded women who have survived violence and war with health and literacy training, vocational and technical skills development, rights awareness and life skills as well as income generation assistance. Participants to our programs include widows, single heads of household, returnees and internally displaced persons. Over 36,000 women have accessed program services in our DRC chapter.
Rights Awareness Education and Vocational Skills Development
Even in the face of violence, poverty and the physical and mental trauma associated with the protracted conflict, Congolese women envision a more peaceful and prosperous Congo, they hope of a future in which they will be able to live and work freely without fear. When they enroll in Women for Women International’s program, they dream of using the education and the skills they learn to earn an income and improve their family situation. They also receive rights awareness training to help them understand their rights, so they may become more active participants in family and community decision-making processes. These sessions also serve to unite women and build a support system that strengthens solidarity and enables them to advocate on behalf of themselves and the group.
The majority of the women who enroll in our programs cannot write more than their names; the World Bank estimates that only 56 percent of women in the DRC are literate. WfWI’s literacy program serves to develop women’s reading and writing skills, which are critical to their ability to access information, employment opportunities, control funds and participate in the social and political activities of their community. Another critical component to Women for Women International’s programming is building and strengthening women’s vocational and technical skills targeted to identified market opportunities. Local instructors provide training in areas such as ceramic tile production, soap making, tailoring, basket weaving, food processing and many others, so that women can access income generating opportunities, thereby improving the health, education and nutrition of their families. WfWI –DRC also support women who are entrepreneurially-inclined, with business start-up advisory services and access to capital and input supplies. After graduation, women are able to form cooperatives, start their businesses and access microfinance opportunities. With knowledge and access to resources, Women for Women International believes that Congolese women can actively participate in the reconstruction of their communities, country and economy. Research findings from the World Bank confirm that direct investment in women is key to stimulating economic growth since women reinvest 90 percent of their income in their families, compared with men who reinvest only 30 – 40 percent.
Food Security and Agriculture
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a vast, fertile, mineral-rich land with tremendous potential for agricultural and economic growth, but the continuing insecurity prevents Congolese people from being able to enjoy the benefits of the vast natural and mineral resources within the country. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, one in every two children across the country is chronically malnourished and findings from the Council on Foreign Relations indicate that most Congolese eat only one to two meals a day. Women and children are the most harmed by the food crisis because when there is not enough food to go around women and girls eat last, which is especially debilitating for young children and pregnant or lactating mothers. Therefore, in order to adequately tackle this food crisis, women must play a central role in agricultural development policies and programs. WfWI-DRC is piloting a new income generation program known as the Commercial Integrated Farming initiative (CIFI). Over a period of three years, 3,000 Congolese women will be given the tools and resources they need to produce high-value crops for commercial markets. This commercial farming initiative was initially launched in Rwanda and Sudan in 2008 to provide Sudanese and Rwandese women with organic agricultural and cooperative development skills to enable them to grow food and generate income for long-term economic and food security. The success of CIFI in Sudan and Rwanda was remarkable. In Sudan for example, nearly 80% of participants were on-track to earn double per-capita GDP at the end of only six months. This is a critical shift against a global context where 70% of the world’s smallholder farmers are women, who yet own less than 2% of the world’s land and customarily survive at only subsistence levels of agriculture. As more women are trained to be skilled farmers in the rebuilding of DRC’s agricultural sector, they will not only be at the center of agricultural and economic development, but they will also be the driving force in reversing Congo’s devastating poverty. Empowering Congolese women with the means to generate an income gives them a renewed sense of purpose and newfound respect from their families and communities.
Engaging Men as Advocates for Women’s Rights
While Women for Women International’s primary mission is to give women the tools and resources they need to rebuild their lives, we have seen in our 17 years of experience that they are not able to do so when violence is rampant and insecurity is a major source of fear and distress. The women we work with tell us that the worse economic problem facing their community is instability. Thus, to tackle the culture of impunity that allows perpetrators of rape to roam freely, Women for Women International believes that we need to engage men in the dialogue about women’s rights and value to society. As Christine Karumba, DRC Country Director, says, “It takes men to stop rape in Congo.” To this end, Women for Women International has developed an innovative program to work with influential male community leaders to raise awareness about the importance of women’s rights and contributions to the community and economy, and the important role they as men and as leaders can play in working to end the epidemic of violence against women that is not only detrimental to women’s health but also to their families, communities and ultimately the social and economic stability of Congo. As one DRC military officer and MLP participant explained “I never understood the impact of rape on women. Rape cases brought before the military were treated with apprehension due to this lack of awareness and I therefore showed little concern for the victims. I did not see the importance of punishing the perpetrators. After the MLP training, I understood that I needed to change my perceptions…” By helping leaders such as this military officer, understand the harmful effects of violence against women, Congolese men and women can begin to work together to combat gender based violence and achieve the ultimate goal of establishing a peaceful and prosperous society. Through the Men’s Leadership Program, we have trained more than 1,000 Congolese male community leaders who have become agents of change, raising awareness and mobilizing other men to actively advocate for greater respect for women’s rights, thereby facilitating community development by engaging both men and women as partners.
For more information on Women for Women International’s work in the DRC and globally, please visit our website at www.womenforwomen.org or contact Lyric Thompson at email@example.com.
Congolese Women Speak Out Against ViolenceThe Women for Women International Stronger Women, Stronger Nations: DR Congo Report
For the women of eastern DR Congo, a conflict more deadly than any since World War II has brought years of displacement, impoverishment and a cruel campaign of sexual violence as a tool of war that continues unabated today. The conflict has:
In policy discussions and news headlines, we rarely hear of the stories of these women—the real heroes in the daily struggle to keep families safe and children fed. Instead, we often hear discussions about the frontlines of war, about military strategies and troop numbers, without acknowledging that real life still goes on during war.
It is the voices of these women, 2,000 socially excluded survivors of war, that we sought to discover and amplify through the Stronger Women, Stronger Nations: DR Congo report.
Their stories underline the importance of women’s full inclusion in securing peace and development. Their recommendations call on their government and the international community to take leadership in ending nearly two decades of conflict that has decimated women’s bodies and entire communities, so that the work building a more peaceful and prosperous country can begin.
Their tales of survival and perseverance are a searing case study in the importance of the three P’s, the core tenets of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on women, peace and security:
View Stronger Women, Stronger Nations: DR Congo report highlights below, or read the full report to take a deeper look into Africa’s deadliest conflict through the eyes of the Congolese women.
The women we spoke with point to rampant violence and insecurity as major impediments to their physical and mental health, and to the survival of themselves and their families. Nearly half fear working outside their homes and believe insecurity is the worst economic problem facing their communities.
When asked what needs to be done to improve the situation, women say they need:
Due to husbands’ deaths, displacement or rejection of victims of sexual violence, Congolese women are increasingly called upon to serve as primary breadwinners and heads of households. Yet, they are trapped in a double bind in which they cannot leave their homes to trade in markets and farm in fields for fear of attacks.
In the context of the horrific violence in eastern DR Congo, the importance of investing in women’s livelihoods programs is often overlooked. Yet, data from the survey demonstrated the importance of livelihood in improving women’s lives. Women who earn even a small income see dividends in their physical and mental health, nutrition and wellbeing of their families:
Exposure to prolonged violence and poverty has resulted in one of the worst health indicators in the world. Women still die from childbirth and easily-preventable, pregnancy-related complications like obstetric fistula. The region is also home to a less-recognized yet urgent mental-health epidemic: for instance, of the more than ¾ of the women surveyed who make less than $1 per day, 70% think of hurting themselves.
Women demand concrete, practical recommendations for improving the severely inadequate health services sector. They want free, affordable and accessible healthcare. For the future, they want an increased focus on building capacity through more technical training facilities.
Women in our programs report more rights awareness and higher rates of happiness, family decision-making, physical and emotional health and living conditions compared to women who have not participated in our programs. They also earn 40% more money, suggesting the power of group participation and skills-building opportunities for women.
When asked about what’s important, women highlight the role of rights awareness in women’s empowerment. Without adequate knowledge and resources, women cannot demand for their rights and for greater government accountability.
WfWI-DRC has the largest program in the Women for Women International network, serving over 7,000 women this year. Looking at a map of the country at large, the areas in which we work seem rather close in vicinity, especially relative to the size of the country (nearly the same landmass as Western Europe). However, looking at the prominently placed map of DRC in the Bukavu headquarters, it is clear that the communities WfWI-DRC serve are nowhere near each other; from North to South, Goma, Bukavu, Baraka, and Uvira are hours away from each other. It is a 13 hour drive, north to south. Unfortunately for me, it means that my time in the country will be primarily limited to Bukavu. Luckily for me, the training staff from all the sub-offices are here for the Training of Trainers (ToT).
The ToT’s purpose is to give an in-depth orientation to the newly deepened Women’s World Manual Curriculum, help the Renewing Women’s Life Skills trainers improve their facilitation skills, and most importantly help them solve problems so they can more effectively serve the women participants. I already knew that the DRC training crew have significant challenges, but I also know that they are uniquely placed to have a great impact on the women we serve. Having worked on the curriculum revision for two years as WfWI Program Coordinator in DC, I am very excited and happy to be here.
This is also a unique opportunity for the trainers; such great distances mean that they have little opportunity to interact, share experiences, and focus exclusively on their training techniques. They seem especially excited that Nina and I are here to focus on their important work. On the first day of training, it seems quite a lot like the first day of “school”; the ReneWLS trainers stick with the people they know. The Bukavu group sits together, the Goma group sits together, and the Baraka/Uvira group sit together. I know they are excited, but they also seem nervous. This is not surprising; having worked on the revised curriculum for a long time myself, I know that the new manual is more than double the size of the original, which makes it imposing before you even open the book. But, as lead training consultant Nina Nayar says as she introduces the curriculum, we have complete confidence in the training staff. We know they can master the new material. All that is really new is the methodology, and I am more than confident that the trainers can learn from each other and teach Nina and I things as well.
Nina introduces herself, and then gives me the floor. I tell the trainers about my work with WfWI, and I also tell them that I am a first generation American whose parents are from Nigeria and Ghana. This is my first trip to Africa since I was a child. This brings lots of smiles and applause to the room.
Then the 37 trainers, plus office and sub-office staff introduce themselves. The youngest trainer is 22 – the oldest trainers playfully decline to give their age. The trainers are young, mature, married, widowed, divorced, single, and have training in many different fields. There are trained teachers, nurses, lawyers, and agronomists in the training staff. Also present is Honorata, the prime example of WfWI successes, is present among the Baraka group of trainers. As we finish introducing ourselves and begin dividing up sessions and exercises to practice, I am certain that WfWI-DRC has the best trainers to be had in the country. I am excited to see what they make of the new material.
This afternoon, the trainers (or formatrice, in the local French) discuss their favorite sessions and least favorite sessions to deliver. We know the sessions that the participants tend to enjoy most from their evaluation forms (women in the economy is the overwhelming favorite), so it is interesting to hear what the trainers have to say.
Most trainers enjoy delivering the health and wellness sessions. It can be amazing how little the women we serve know about their bodies and basic things like basic hygiene and nutrition. Their poverty makes it difficult to effectively manage their health. When you live in a mud hut with a thatched roof, no indoor plumbing, and no electricity, how healthy can we reasonably expect our program participants to be? It isn’t surprising that the trainers enjoy delivering this module. Its impact is immediate and visible, and makes the trainers feel good about their jobs.
Further discussion reveals that there is a split on the Stress, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and Stress Management session. Many trainers enjoy delivering this session because they know that their participants suffer from varying degrees of stress. All of our women face stress from being poverty-stricken in their daily lives. Then there is the stress that comes from difficult family situations; many of our participants suffer from domestic violence. Finally, there is the overwhelming stress that comes from the unstable security environment. Many participants are displaced, living in IDP camps, or are returnees who have to rebuild their lives from scratch. They have lost family in the conflict. Many have been raped or otherwise exploited as their communities have been destroyed. Several of our trainers, including the very vocal Mai (from Bukavu) and Josephine (from Goma), enjoy delivering the Stress and Stress Management session because they are well aware of how desperately their women are in need of relief.
Others disagree, and it is interesting that they dislike the Stress and Stress Management topics for the same reasons that their fellow trainers enjoy it. Denise, one of our Bukavu trainers, says that her participants are so traumatized by the conflict that they cannot handle this session. They start weeping in class, and Denise is often at a loss for how best to comfort them. Marie Claire, another Bukavu trainer, agrees. The unstable environment affects all the women, and there is unfortunately no end in sight.
Mai adds to the discussion. She enjoys delivering the stress session, but she dislikes the sessions on women and politics. She says that this is because she, as well as the women she trains, blame Congo’s local and national politicians for their poverty and suffering. She isn’t wrong. I’ve only been here a few days, but I can already see that there is little infrastructure and even fewer facilities.
Mai goes on to say that there is only one trained psychologist in the Bukavu area. How can one psychologist provide for thousands of women who are in such great need of counseling? She understands her colleague’s frustrations; there is only so much that our trainers can do for their women.
As it turns out, Mai was a trained HIV / AIDS counselor during her former career as a nurse. She suggests that the trainers with a background in health receive additional training in trauma counseling to help our own WfWI participants with their unique needs. Nina and I ask how many trainers think this would help their women in need, as well as help them deliver the stress sessions more effectively. All 37 trainers raise their hands. Mai and Josephine make it their personal mission to hammer this point home to Nina and I for the rest of the week. I understand, and hope that we can strengthen trainer capacity in this regard. No one can deny that they in DRC, trauma healing is vital to out success and to our women’s recovery from the conflict.
Five years ago, Lisa Shannon watched “Oprah” and learned about the savage, forgotten war here in eastern Congo, played out in massacres and mass rape. That show transformed Lisa’s life, costing her a good business, a beloved fiancé, and a comfortable home in Portland, Ore. — but giving her a chance to save lives in Congo.
I found myself stepping with Lisa into a shack here. It was night, there was no electricity, and a tropical rainstorm was turning the shantytown into a field of mud and streams. Lisa had come to visit a woman she calls her sister, Generose Namburho, a 40-year-old nurse.
Generose’s story is numbingly familiar: extremist Hutu militiamen invaded her home one night, killed her husband and prepared to rape her. Then, because she shouted in an attempt to warn her neighbors, they hacked off her leg above the knee with a machete.
As Generose lay bleeding near her husband’s corpse, the soldiers cut up the amputated leg, cooked the pieces on the kitchen fire, and ordered her children to eat their mother’s flesh. One son, a 12-year-old, refused. “If you kill me, kill me,” he told the soldiers, as his mother remembers it. “But I will not eat a part of my mother.”
So they shot him dead. The murder is one of Generose’s last memories before she blacked out, waking up days later in the hospital where she had worked.
That’s where Lisa enters the story. After seeing the Oprah show on the Congo war, Lisa began to read more about it, learning that it is the most lethal conflict since World War II. More than five million had already died as of the last peer-reviewed mortality estimate in 2007.
Everybody told her that the atrocities continued because nobody cared. Lisa, who is now 34, was appalled and decided to show that she cared. She asked friends to sponsor her for a solo 30-mile fund-raising run for Congolese women.
That led her to establish Run for Congo Women, which has held fund-raising runs in 10 American states and three foreign countries. The money goes to support sponsorships of Congolese women through a group called Women for Women International.
But in her passion, Lisa neglected the stock photo business that she and her fiancé ran together. Finally, he signaled to her that she had to choose — and she chose Congo.
One of the Congolese women (“sisters”) whom Lisa sponsored with her fund-raising was Generose. Lisa’s letters and monthly checks of $27 began arriving just in time.
“God sent me Lisa to release me,” Generose told me fervently, as the rain pounded the roof, and she then compared Lisa to an angel and to Jesus Christ.
Scrunching up in embarrassment in the darkened room, Lisa fended off deification. She noted that many impoverished Congolese families have taken in orphans. “They’ve lost everything,” she said, “but they take children in when they can’t even feed their own properly. I’ve been so inspired by them. I’ve tried to restructure my life to emulate them.”
It’s true. While for years world leaders have mostly looked the other way, while our friend Rwanda has helped perpetuate this war, while Congo’s president has refused to arrest a general wanted by the International Criminal Court, while global companies have accepted tin, coltan and other minerals produced by warlords — amid all this irresponsibility, many ordinary Congolese have stepped forward to share the nothing they have with their neighbors.
So Lisa is right that Generose and so many others here are awe-inspiring. Lisa tells her story in a moving book, “A Thousand Sisters,” that is set to be published in April. Congo is now her obsession, and she is volunteering full time on the cause as she lives off the declining royalties from her old stock photos.
She earns psychic pay when she sees a woman here who named her daughter Lisa. After we visited Congolese Lisa, I asked American Lisa about the toll of her Congo obsession — the lost business, man and home they had shared.
“Technically, I had a good life before, but I wasn’t very happy,” she mused. “Now I feel I have much more of a sense of meaning.”
Maybe that’s why I gravitate toward Lisa’s story. In a land where so many “responsible” leaders eschew responsibility, Lisa has gone out of her way to assume responsibility and try to make a difference. Along with an unbelievable cast of plucky Congolese survivors such as Generose, she evokes hope.
On this visit to Congo, Lisa is organizing a Run for Congo Women right here in Bukavu, for Feb. 28, with Congolese rape survivors participating. You can sponsor them at www.runforCongowomen.org. And one of those participating in the run, hobbling along on crutches and her one leg, will be Generose.
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