Twenty-two thousand, three hundred and eighty-one: the number of cases of sexual violence treated in a decade at the Panzi Hospital in the Congolese town Bukavu. And that is just a fraction of the number of survivors in this one eastern province. The number of women and girls who have survived rape and sexual assault here in this province of South Kivu in the war-wracked east of the Democratic Republic of Congo runs into tens of thousands.
Members of an armed group raped Maramuke in front of her children in Walungu, south of Bukavu, in 2006, and burnt her house down. Her husband disowned her. She came to Bukavu with her seven children. “An association gave me a micro-loan of 30 dollars. I travel between Kaniola and Bukavu, some 70 kilometres, to manage a little business which allows me to feed my kids,” she says. Kaniola village lies on the edge of Mugaba Forest, one of the remaining strongholds of the FDLR, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, the militia which carried out the 1994 genocide before fleeing into DRC. Mireille was raped repeatedly in this village in July 2007. “My nine-month-old baby was present the last time. He started crying. A blow from a rifle butt fractured his skull and he died on the spot,” the 45-year-old says. “I relive this horror constantly. I could no longer sleep. I wanted to die. But the people from the mobile clinic (from the Panzi Hospital) found me and brought me here.”
The NGO Family Health International looked after her, but she continues to feel pain in her abdomen. “My menses sometimes last the whole month.” Women like her in need of long-term assistance are largely shunned. Outside Panzi Hospital, health facilities in this region lack equipment, medicine and trained personnel. Cecile Mulolo, who works with the Panzi Hospital's programme for victims of sexual violence, says survivors suffer depression, nightmares, anger, shame, loss of self-esteem, guilt, amnesia, and feelings of aggression. “These mental health problems are aggravated by the fear that survivors will be disowned by their husbands, rejected by their family or community. The fear of contracting AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases, or of falling pregnant intensifies their trauma.
Many women's organisations, human rights groups, development agencies and religious associations have opened places of safety and counseling for rape survivors, known as maisons d'écoute. Centres such as Heri Kwetu (meaning “happiness in our home”) are supported by international donor funds to help women with physical rehabilitation. Here women can be fitted for prostheses, orthotics, or given crutches. Another centre, Sozame-Karhale, deals with particularly difficult psychosomatic cases referred from the Panzi Hospital. Other associations help survivors earn a living through agricultural or commercial activity, and to regain social status and self-confidence. The women are given agricultural implements, seeds or training. Rosalie Rudahaba Nyamugusha is coordinator of one such maison d'écoute, the Mamas for Africa centre in Bukavu. “When the victims regain their psychological balance,” she tells IPS, “we put them in groups and give them jobs according to their interests: in agriculture, livestock rearing or apprenticing them to various trades. We give them micro loans. This allows them to reintegrate into society.”
Jeanine is among the orphaned girls at Mamas for Africa's premises in the Labotte neighbourhood of Bukavu. She said she abandoned school after being raped. “We were enrolled in a programme to teach us computer skills, and everything has gone quite well.” Jeanine says the organisation found an instructor for abandoned children and many are now returning to their studies. But the underlying insecurity in the region continues to threaten efforts at rehabilitation. An NGO in the Fizi-Baraka region in the southeast helped survivors set up a restaurant, but this was then looted and destroyed by the militias. Most families refuse to take legal action. Josephine Nkulu is an exception. Her 16-year-old niece was raped, and the family is supporting the young woman's bid to seek justice in the courts.
“Family resistance isn't the only thing limiting the monitoring of sexual violence,” says Nkulu. “It's mostly the absence of strong and permanent government agencies that can organise the intake and care of victims.” Aline Okongo, coordinator of the Congolese Network of AIDS NGOs, says “the government must create maisons d'écoute for victims of sexual violence throughout the country. It is not normal for this important service to only be offered by private institutions.”