KALEHE, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO – Wilermine travels from her home to the local food market in Nyabibwe, a town in eastern DRC’s Kalehe territory, a few times a week.
One day on the way to the market, the 25-year-old mother of two, who requested that only her first name be used for fear of being stigmatized, was raped.
Sexual violence against women and girls is common in this part of the country which has long been plagued by conflict, she says. Those who experience sexual violence are often kicked out of their homes by spouses and do not have access to adequate psychological, medical or legal resources.
“My husband rejected me after I told him I had been raped,” she says. Wilermine moved in with her parents after the attack.
A new counseling facility in Nyabibwe, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Bukavu, South Kivu’s provincial capital, is offering women and girls who have experienced sexual violence new psychological support. Locals who have experienced armed conflict-related violence also have access to the services offered at the facility run by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Esther Nsapu, GPJ DRC
For years, soldiers of Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo, the country’s official army, and other armed groups have been known to commit acts of sexual violence.
Other acts are committed by criminals acting alone.
“When our armed forces conduct sweeping-up operations through the area, armed robbers retreat to hideouts, and then return to commit their crimes,” says Jacques Kapuli, the head of the administrative supervision unit in Nyabibwe.
Family members, friends and colleagues can also be responsible for acts of sexual violence against Congolese women. Despite efforts from local officials and nonprofits to end the practice, 111 cases of rape were recorded in the territory in 2017, says Annie Malongo, executive director of Centre d’Etudes pour le Leadership et la Promotion des Droits de l’Homme (CELPDH), a human rights organization in South Kivu. But she says many women do not report acts of violence against them, affecting statistics.
The counseling facility, which opened in June, is available to residents of Nyabibwe and neighboring villages including Lushebere and Mukisha, says Papy Maulizo , head of the facility. The 10-member staff offers free counseling and will refer women to medical centers within 72 hours of rapes, he says.
Three to four people visit the facility each week. Many of them come to the facility following door-to-door visits by staff, says James Songa, who is in charge of the psychosocial department at the International Committee of the Red Cross office in South Kivu. These visits are part of local efforts to increase awareness about gender-based violence.
“We have to help communities understand that the victims of rape and sexual assault are human beings, just like us, which points to the need to fight the stigma surrounding their plight,” he says. “Not only do we sensitize people to rush sexual violence victims to the nearby health facility at the earliest, but we also advise them to take them to the counseling house for psychological support.”
Wilermine, who received counseling at the facility, says she returned home to her husband after two months. Staff later referred her to a health center, where she says she was tested for sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Her test results were negative. This helped put her husband’s mind at ease, she says.
Despite growing awareness of sexual violence, stigma remains widespread, Malongo says.
About 80 percent of women in the South Kivu province who experience sexual violence lose their jobs because they are scared to continue living in their communities, where they are verbally abused by others or kicked out of their homes by family members, Malongo says.
“The counseling house helps victims heal from trauma,” she says. “The best solution, however, would be for them to be provided with holistic support through access to health care, legal assistance, psychosocial support and socioeconomic reintegration services.”
Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.