Honoring Honorata – A Journey from Rape Survivor to Advocate
Honorata Kizende’s past is marked by incredible hardship, horrific violence, social isolation, and near death destruction. And yet, it is also an account of survival, strength, and testimony to human strength.
At the 2008 Women for Women International awards gala in New York almost 800 guests celebrated Honorata, a Congolese rape survivor and graduate of the organization’s program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She received this year’s Woman of the World Award for her courage and advocacy on behalf of women survivors of war.
“All of us are humbled while we stand in front of you. You have taught us all and you have taught me about courage and resilience. And if Honorata can stand up after going through what she has gone through, who are we not to?” said Zainab Salbi, Founder and CEO of Women for Women International, after handing the award to Honorata.
Honorata had been a sex slave and kept in captivity by armed militias in eastern Congo for almost a year. She was repeatedly gang-raped in public. After she escaped, the stigma of rape made her family reject her. Alone and destitute she found refuge in a friend’s house and was raped again when armed men looted the property. This time her daughter had to watch.
Today Honorata Kizende runs a small tie-die business with a group of women who pooled their resources. And she has decided to break the silence. Honorata is advocating for an end to sexual violence and calls on members of her community to restore the rights of women who have gone through rape and stigmatization.
Goldman Sachs Chairman and CEO, Lloyd C. Blankfein presented Honorata with a scholarship for a six week entrepreneurship course at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
"We know that when you invest in women, we transform not only the person, but also families, communities and, ultimately, countries. It is that multiplier effect that we believe is fundamental to long term, sustained economic growth," Blankfein told the audience before handing the scholarship to Honorata Kizende.
The gift is part of the investment bank’s 10,000 Women initiative (www.10000women.org) that was created to enhance core business knowledge and provide the women in poor and emerging markets with the tools they need to grow their businesses and positively change their local communities. Women for Women International awarded the Citizen of the World award to the investment bank for this program.
Dressed in a traditional outfit made from fabric from her own business, Honorata thanked the audience, her sponsor, and Goldman Sachs for their support.
“I am very happy that Women for Women International has connected me with Goldman Sachs’ initiative that cares so much about the improvement of the lives of women,” says Honorata. “After the training I am planning to improve my business and organize my life in a better way. Hopefully, I will be able to identify new opportunities and can use my knowledge to train other women in the Women for Women International program.”
Honorata’s personal highlight of the evening was the surprise reunion with a woman she had once looked after when she was a teacher at a girl’s school. Faida Mitifu, recalled how Honorata Kizende helped her to adjust to boarding school and became a pillar of support before their ways parted more than three decades ago.
It is a tale of two women, whose lives could not have turned out to be more different. Faida Mitifu went to the US to study and get a PHD. Today she is the Congolese ambassador to the United States. Honorata stayed in eastern Congo and became a victim of war, violence, and rape.
“Honorata has been a victim of the tragedy that has been unfolding in the DRC for more than 10 years. And yet Honorata today can see the future. It is a great pleasure to see my big sister, my mentor, whom I have not seen for more than 30 years,” Faida Mitifu said before the two women embraced each other.
“She Touched My Heart” – A Sponsor Meets Her Sister, Honorata
“When I am walking the roads in my country and I am all by myself, I know there is a woman out there, who cares for me,” says Honorata Kizende, a Congolese survivor of horrific sexual slavery and violence. She was talking about her American sponsor, Mariama Hadiah, a women she had never met and only knew from exchanging heartening letters across continents.
Congo Panel Representatives“I don’t have a lot, but I want to help,” Mariama Hadiah and her sister Honorata Kizende (left). They met at the 2008 Women for Women International gala in New York.
Mariama is Honorata’s sponsor and has paid for her Women for Women training that enabled her to become an advocate against violence and a business woman. The proceeds from Honorata’s small tie-die shop that she runs with a group of rape survivors and program graduates has put all of her children through school.
Their first meeting took place at the 2008 Women for Women International New York gala, where Honorata received the ‘Woman of the World Award’ for her courage and advocacy on behalf of women survivors of war. Their encounter was emotional for both. Honorata embraced Mariama, calling her ‘my sister’ and during her acceptance speech told almost 800 people in the audience that she owes her livelihood to her.
“It was humbling. She touched my heart. And I felt very fortunate when she gave this beautiful speech,” remembers Mariama. “Honorata gave me a lot of hope. I thought if she can go through so much, I certainly can hang in there as well.”
Mariama, a former middle school teacher from California, has health problems and currently lives of a small disability allowance. A devout Buddhist the 59year old has committed herself to working toward world peace. Sponsoring Honorata through Women for Women International is a means to this end. “If we help mothers, we help children, and, ultimately, we can rebuild whole societies,” says Mariama. “I don’t have a lot, but I want to help.”
Despite her own situation, Mariama worries about the larger impacts of the current financial crisis. “It is going to be hard for people to see the purpose of giving. But I believe that we are not going to be happy if we have millions of people in the world who continue to suffer.”
Honorata has dedicated her life to breaking the silence. She speaks on behalf of tens of thousands who have been raped in her home country and is asking everybody she encounters to use their political and financial influence to help bringing an end to the violence in her country. For Mariama Honorata’s story is uplifting and a proof of the power of human strength.
“She is a teacher. She is showing us all how strong each of us can be.”