| Feb 19, 2014
Saving Mothers' Lives in the Congo Through Livelihood Programs
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.”