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Story Publication logo July 11, 2014

Democratic Republic of Congo: Survivors of Sexual Violence Find Hope and a New Start


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Children in the DRC who have lost families, homes and schools prove to be resilient as well as...

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This article was also published in the Italian publication L'Indro.

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Yolande, dressed in a bright pink T-shirt, denim skirt and pink sandals, is holding her bright-eyed 2-year-old. The noon sun is shining and the air is warm. Yolande carries her little girl over to the yellow pail in the courtyard to join the other toddlers for a bath. The children are splashing the soapy water in and out of the pail—they're having fun.

Yolande and her daughter live at the Maison Marguerite (Marguerite House) in the heart of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. This shelter, established by a Catholic charity and staffed by Congolese, is a small complex for young women and girls who are survivors of sexual violence.

Those who make their way to Maison Marguerite have not only a place to live but a community where they feel welcomed, the opportunity to attend school without paying fees, and the responsibility to care for themselves and for each other.

In a city and region where rape has become commonplace and fear a part of everyday life, Maison Marguerite cannot claim to have beaten the demons that plague eastern Congo.

It is a lesson in what is possible, a beacon of hope in a place where young women yearn for community and new opportunities.

Goma, the capital of North Kivu province in eastern Congo, has been at the center of fighting that has ravaged this region since 1998. Rebel groups vie for control, pillaging, destroying homes, recruiting children by force, displacing entire villages, killing civilians, and raping women and girls.

In April 2014, Navi Pillay, head of UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) reported that the Congolese government had counted 26,339 incidents of rape and other gender-based violence in seven provinces during the years 2011 and 2012—and another 15,352 cases in 2013. The actual numbers may be higher.

According to a June 2014 Human Rights Watch report, "armed groups and members of the Congolese army have used rape as a weapon of war to 'punish' civilians belonging to a particular ethnic group, or those they accused of supporting the 'enemy.' Stigma and fear of rejection by their families or communities have prevented many women and girls from reporting rape."

Dr. Alice Mudekereza, a 37-year-old Congolese women and children's rights activist, says that since soldiers often go unpunished civilians think they also have free license. As in other war-torn areas, it is the young women and children who suffer the most, becoming rejected, orphaned, homeless, or pregnant.

Mudekereza studied medicine in Lubumbashi and has spent the last 10 years in eastern Congo working to promote the status of women and girls, prevent HIV transmission to babies, and support victims of sexual violence. She has witnessed firsthand the need for psychological counseling for rape survivors. Time and again she sees their families abandon them. Left alone, they no longer laugh, they withdraw, and they never stop feeling sad.

With no home to call their own, finding a transitional shelter may be one of the most difficult hurdles these women face, especially if there is a baby in tow. Although there are numerous NGOs and social service agencies in Goma—signs on the gates along the main road are testament to this—not all offer the hands-on care or the nurturing atmosphere of Maison Marguerite.

Yet gaining entrance demands persistence. Many never make it to the door. Those who do are most often turned away. Far too few return a second time.

Yolande was one who did.

Pregnant—and not by choice

"I sleep well and I have a very good bed," Yolande said. She considers herself fortunate and takes nothing for granted. She tells us she was 16 when she was raped and became pregnant. "While I was pregnant I suffered a lot. Everyone rejected me."

Yolande (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) was no stranger to rejection. Her father, the chief of a village near Butembo, to the north of Goma, had died of poisoning when she was an infant. His wife could not care for all of her nine children so Yolande moved in with relatives in Goma.

After she was raped, family and friends wanted nothing to do with Yolande, but then a neighbor took her to the Notre Dame d'Afrique parish for counseling.

Although many women in Goma give birth at home, often without midwives, when Yolande went into labor and it became apparent that both she and the baby were at risk, her aunt took her to a hospital for a C-section.

"I was given an IV," Yolande said. "The nurses took care of my scar. I was well taken care of."

After the baby's birth an elderly woman offered Yolande a temporary place to stay. She was grateful to have a roof over her head, but she and the baby were cramped and uncomfortable. A young mother Yolande had met at the hospital convinced her to visit the Maison Marguerite. "You'll find other young mothers there," she said.

Knocking on the Gate

The Maison Marguerite is not one house but a small complex made up of several small freshly painted wooden bungalows called maisonettes—green, orange, yellow, lime green. A high stone wall surrounds the property. Laundry is hung out to dry. Wood is stacked in the corner. An outdoor stove marks the cooking area. Several sinks are tucked under an awning.

One of the buildings houses a school for the girls and young women. Some students live in the maisonettes. Others come just for the day, bringing their babies strapped to their backs.

When Yolande first arrived at the Maison Marguerite in 2012, she felt instantly at home—here was a place where she could be happy. She met the director Jean Paul Kinanga and begged him to let her stay. Kinanga is young and energetic and wanted to help but there was no room to take in another young mother and baby.

"I was very courageous. I kept going back," Yolande told us. She got Kinanga to let her take a math exam knowing that if she did well she would have a better chance of persuading him to let her stay. It worked. She did so well that Kinanga agreed to enroll her as a day student.

Still Yolande dreamed of moving into a maisonette. She had outworn her welcome with the old woman. "After class the other children went home. I came to see Jean Paul and I cried," she said. "I explained my situation and told him I wanted to live here. I kept returning to see him."

And then one day, after an entire month that seemed more like a year, Kinanga told her, "Yes. Go get all your things. You can do your education and training here."

Yolande and her daughter sleep under a mosquito net in a room with another mother and her baby.

Jean Paul explained that the Maison Marguerite houses as many as 22 girls, survivors of sexual violence, ex-child soldiers or "wives" of soldiers, and "vulnerable girls"—street children who have no home and like Yolande knock on the gate.

And there are many who come calling.

In November 2013, the M23, a rebel group that had been on the offensive for a year and a half, repeatedly committing rape and atrocities, was defeated. Hundreds of fighters disarmed.

Still the threat from other groups remains real and pervasive. The violence may very well continue.

It is frustrating for Jean Paul that there is not enough space for the many victims of sexual abuse. "There is so much more of a demand now. With all the insecurity in the region poverty has increased. And with more poverty come looting and rape," he said.

"I no longer think about my friends in the old neighborhood," Yolande said. She's made new friends and has time to listen to music on the radio. She is content. "When I'm missing a shoe or if my skirt is dirty someone will give me a shoe or a skirt."

Yolande wants to be a seamstress and is studying tailoring along with seven other students. "I've learned a lot," Yolande said. "When I make mistakes the teachers help me and support me."

Soon Yolande will be asked to leave. She now has the skills to become a seamstress, but first she needs a place to set up shop.

Other young women are studying to be cooks and pastry chefs. Of the nine students in the pastry class four are already mothers who bring their babies to class. The hairdressing class is even more popular with sixteen 12- to 17-year-olds in attendance. Eight of them live in the Maison Marguerite and the others are day students. Several have already started working and make about $5 a week; once they graduate they will make up to $30 a week.

"Healing is not about surgery and pills."

The Maison Marguerite is a small enclave unto itself, an offshoot of the Don Bosco Ngangi center, an organization that serves over 3,000 youth in and around Goma. Started by the Catholic order of Salesians, who work with youth at risk, the center was named for Don Bosco, a 19th century Italian priest who took in street children.

At first Don Bosco Ngangi provided a place for youth in the Ngangi neighborhood to play sports. That was in 1988. But now the center occupies over 17 acres, operates several smaller satellite shelters, and educates some of Goma's most vulnerable youth. Most attend school during the day while some board in a dorm-like setting. Some are young women like Yolande, survivors of sexual violence. Others are former child soldiers who are ready to put behind them the life they once led.

The boys study everything from electrical engineering to plumbing, masonry, welding, and agriculture. Frère George, a Salesian brother, runs the woodworking program. He is teaching more than new skills—character development is key. "I must help the youth and make sure they are well grounded," he said.

When the center first opened the students didn't pay attention and they often fell asleep. Pascal Kyksa, a Don Bosco Ngangi social worker who grew up in Goma, explained that the cause was hunger: "Before they could learn they needed to be fed." The center started providing a midday meal, and as the number of students grew, so did the quantities of porridge.

Kitchen equipment comes in the giant-size variety. A vat designed in Italy holds 800 liters of beans. The chef stirs the beans with a spoon that looks more like an oar. Later he divides the food, corn mush, beans, and cassava into pails—one for each class. The storeroom holds large quantities of food, but supplies go quickly when there are more than 3,000 mouths to feed. Every month the staff worries about what will happen when the food is depleted; they have been fortunate—new donations trickle in and the cupboards are replenished.

Without a midday meal, the children would not eat," said Monica Corna, a volunteer who has lived and worked at the center for 11 years. When 65 students were surveyed, it was found that only 18 ate an evening meal at home.

The center also provides shelter for mothers whose babies, some with HIV/AIDS, are malnourished. A nutritionist assesses the babies, weighs them, measures heads and arms, and feeds them. Just as important is teaching mothers proper nutrition and literacy.

When fighting occurs townspeople take refuge at the center. In November 2012, when the M23 rebels took control of Goma, children, staff, parents and neighbors all gathered in the large hall at night—along with the goats and pigs. In the morning they found bullets strewn across the grounds.

After a month, once the rebels withdrew from Goma and the situation became a bit more stable, those who had camped out at Don Bosco dispersed. Each family was given two pieces of sheeting provided by UNICEF, one to cover the roof of whatever housing they could find and the other to sell so they could buy food.

For those at Don Bosco Ngangi it has become readily apparent that you can't treat one problem without fixing another. Perhaps no one we met in Goma was more articulate about the need for a holistic approach than Dr. Jo Lusi, a surgeon and founder of HEAL Africa, a teaching hospital in Goma: "To help the country develop the mother must be literate."

With his winning smile, the voice of authority, and a contagious exuberance it's easy to see why Lusi has been influential. "Healing is not about surgery and pills," he said. He believes the role of women must change—something that must be undertaken by both men and women.

Experience, if not Dr. Lusi, has taught the Don Bosco Ngangi staff the same lesson, preparing them to reach out in many directions. Violence towards women affects the entire community; there is no single way to help young women recover from rape or rejection. Change happens only when solutions become commingled and a multi-pronged approach addresses issues of poverty, education and justice.

"They won't make millions, but they'll make a living."

Don Bosco Ngangi will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. At its helm is Father Piero Gavioli, the director. Unassuming, calm, driven, he is a priest brave enough to take small steps believing they will make a difference. "We help people to take charge of their lives. They won't make millions but they'll make a living," he said. He is thinking of new ways to provide vocational training—starting a coffee farm outside the city or opening a gallery to sell crafts made by the youth at Maison Marguerite.

Gavioli stays the course. He has dreams for the country that has been his home for almost half a century. "The earth is very fertile. The beauty is great. We are mineral-rich—the possibilities for our country are tremendous," he said. With all the fighting, progress is slow. Still, "without Don Bosco Ngangi several hundred orphans would have died and thousands would not have received an education. Many more would have become child soldiers or prostitutes."

While Maison Marguerite offers a refuge for dozens of girls, Gavioli wishes they could increase the number of young women they help by giving rape victims time to recover, to learn new skills, and to see that others care. He wants to heal body, mind and soul and to allow these young women to start a new life.

Joséphine Malimukono, director of the Ligue pour la Solidarité Congolaise (League for Congolese Solidarity), a non-profit that advocates for women's rights and social justice, calls for more support for organizations like Don Bosco and the Maison Marguerite. The demand is too great. The center and the shelter are both overwhelmed with requests and cannot respond to the vast majority. The Congolese government must honor its commitment to its country's youth, she says.

Taking charge

Yolande is one young woman who was given a second chance. There are others, too. Sophie (whose name has been changed) had been at the Maison Marguerite for eight months when we met her. She was studying math as well as sewing and tailoring.

Sophie was born in Uvira, in South Kivu, where her father died when she was only three months old. Sophie lived alone with her mother, estranged from her brother and sister. Last spring, she and her mother were on their way home from church when militia fighters known as the Mai Mai grabbed her mother "and took her into the hills." They beat her and attacked her. As Sophie told us what happened she started to cry.

Sophie said she works hard and reads over her school notes during her free time. She also reads the Bible.

She says she eats well, mostly fish and vegetables. She has finished her tailoring apprenticeship. As soon as she passes her school exams, she will be expected to move out and get a job.

For an institution like the Maison Marguerite this is the way it has to be. To serve the many girls who need its help it is essential that the residents learn a trade and move on to lead independent lives.

That does not make it easy for young women like Yolande and Sophie who have suffered so much and for whom the Maison Marguerite has been a source of refuge, solace, and support.

Sophie worries. It may be difficult to find work once she leaves. Part of her wishes she could stay on at the Maison Marguerite.



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