A new safe house
Thanks to your generous support, TrustAfrica's GlobalGiving campaign for HEAL Africa has raised more than $2,200 — enough to let more than 200 Congolese rape survivors spend a month regaining their health and dignity at a HEAL Africa safe house.
The following reports were prepared by HEAL Africa:
The purpose of the safe houses
The purpose of the safe houses hasn’t changed, but its name has, to Wamama Simameni, swahili for “Women Stand Up Together” . HEAL Africa has added a few purposes. It is a gathering place for women—to sit together, to learn to read and write, learn tailoring, learn to make bread, doughnuts or make soap. It’s also a community gathering place. The Nehemiah Committee meets here. The HEAL Africa staff from Goma come here when they’re in town, and teach nurses or midwives new skills, or hold family planning seminars, or talk about preventing transmission of HIV. Young people from 9 to 18 years old come here to learn the same information about preventing HIV, or the laws protecting women and children, and how to teach it to others. It’s a place of learning and light as well as safety. And there’s always a discreet door to the back where women can slip in and out, meet with a counselor in safety, and get help.
The houses are now called “Women Stand Up Together”, for that’s its role. It’s a place of joy, of restoration, of life, and of hope. For the women today, and for the community’s tomorrow. Strong women standing up together will ensure that their children eat well, go to school, and partipate in the community.
All the women of the community can come here, share stories, share skills, encourage each other. In some communities women are getting ready for the coming elections: they’re determined to elect people who will protect their interests. They now know that their elected officials are responsible to those who elect them.
Safe places that offer the treatment
We drove to get there, the nondescript house on the side street in a little town in northeast Congo. They walk. They know it’s there and they know someone cares when they get there. There’s a listening room for the woman who’s been raped. If she’d heard about the treatment to prevent HIV, she’s already been to the hospital or clinic for PEP, or Post Exposure Prophyllaxis. If she didn’t know about it and it’s within 72 hours of the incident the counselors will get her to the hospital immediately. Then she can come back and tell them what happened. Getting the word out that they need to get PEP has been a big change for women in Congo. And there are now places that offer the treatment.
When she gets back to the Wamama Simameni house she knows there are listening ears for her. And that she’s not alone. Once her story has been told, she might want to come again and learn to read, or to sew, or to bake bread. In one house there are Catholic and Muslim counselors, in another there might be Baptist and Pentecostal or Kimbanguist counselors. All the counselors are chosen by their community leaders as women who are trustworthy leaders.
The counselor. Call her Daniella. She’s 24 and lives in a little village out of the urban center. She’s had enough education to be able to read and write reports. She became a counselor because she knew the women really needed help, and she felt she could help them. She’s the youngest of 14 women who work in an area around one of the Wamama Simameni houses. They come in to give their reports, and get further training on a regular basis. She knows that she’s at risk too, because if the women tell her who raped them, the rapists know that she knows. She has been threatened several times. It’s not easy work, but it’s needed. And she’s not going to stop. She hasn’t been paid for three months because the funding for this program stopped. When asked why she continues to listen to women, she laughs and says, “They are still being raped. My job is to listen. How can I stop just because I’m not being paid?”
The mother. She was taken off into the forest when the armed men came into her town. She was young and she was strong. She was used for sex and anything else they wanted. When she became pregnant she eventually escaped. She found the house where women are welcomed. She found the bedroom where she can sleep or rest by herself. Her baby was born two weeks ago and she named him “Happiness God is Here”. She has a house, but doesn’t feel safe there, so she comes most days and just spends the day here with her son. She doesn’t talk much. The counselors make sure she gets some food. “She isn’t ready”, they say. They know she’s still traumatized, and they’re waiting and watching for the right time to start her into a new path. She hadn’t gone to school, and was a farmer, but she can’t do that anymore. She’s too afraid to go to her garden. What if she’s caught again? So they’ll eventually help her learn some new skills. But for now, she can use the bedroom in peace.
The others. In the same compound there’s another group of women in a small, dark room. They’re sitting around with their littlest ones, babies or toddlers. One counselor sits with them, comes in and out. They’re all survivors of rape, still too traumatized to be out and about. This town had some very fierce battles not too many months ago, and there are military all around. They are still too wounded to undertake something like the bread baking the women do in the town about 40 km away. That town was also the scene of fierce battles and retributions, but the ten women who were there yesterday had already come through some of the stages of their recovery and they meet weekly to make rolls, doughnuts and bread. They’ve developed a clientele and quickly sell what they make. The oven is in the Wamama Simameni house, so it’s normal and natural that they come there. There’s no stigma to this activity! What began as a group of women coming together to heal from the shared trauma of rape is moving forward as a business venture. As part of their healing they are building new opportunities for themselves and each other.
Or the women who’ve graduated from sewing class and want to form a sewing cooperative. They meet, work, and have started to laugh again. They like being together. On the same compound is a place, a converted rice mill, kind of a hanger with sides, where kids come for a kind of youth club four days a week for an hour. There are two groups, 9-12 and 13-18. They discuss things like the new laws to protect women and children in Congo. HIV and how it’s spread. Gender. Justice. These young people are being trained as peer educators, so that the information they learn here can be spread. Of course, this program has also been halted because of lack of funding. But the teachers still come, four days a week. And so do the kids. 80 of them in the house we visited yesterday ! This is important stuff for the young people of Congo to learn, and they want to teach!
HEAL Africa is working with men and women who want change for the people of their country. They’re tackling it in various ways, in different neighborhoods, in schools, in parishes, in courts of law, in clinics and in hospitals. Wamama Simameni houses are centers for various HEAL Africa programs and resources to intersect with women in a community. The Nehemiah Committees meet here. The Safe Motherhood team teaches here. Everyone is welcome. And there’s always a back entrance for the one who wants to slip in and slip out in privacy.