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D.R. Congo: Helping Women and Families Heal From Sexual Violence

On International Women’s Day, read about Medair’s efforts to support and uplift traumatised women in D.R. Congo.

“It happened on a Wednesday morning while I was on my way to the farm,” says 23-year-old Marie [1], her voice trembling. “I had a strange feeling that I was being followed. Soon after, a man appeared in front of me with a big knife the size of my arm.”  

Every day, the threat of sexual violence blights the lives of innocent women in eastern D.R. Congo. The prevalence and intensity of rape and sexual violence in this region has been described as the worst in the world [2].

Brutal sexual violence is regularly used as a weapon of war by armed militia to intimidate, humiliate, and torture women and girls in Haut and Bas Uélé districts. But women also risk being raped by members of their community−sometimes by people they know−as they go about their daily lives, gathering firewood, water, or working in the fields.
 
“The sexual violence phenomenon is baffling to us,” says Mbizole Anita Thaddee, a nurse attendant at the Medair-supported clinic at Ndedu, 45 kilometres from Dungu town. “It never used to be like this before. There have been more and more cases, including attacks on children.”

Along with devastating psychological trauma, survivors of sexual violence often experience high rates of sexually transmitted infections, HIV transmission, unwanted pregnancy, and fistulas which, if left untreated, can impair reproductive health.

Treating the Wounds of Body and Soul

Francisque Mawele, Medair’s sexual violence project supervisor, works with trainee nurse attendant Mbizole.

Francisque Mawele, Medair’s sexual violence project supervisor, works with trainee nurse attendant Mbizole.

Medair sees a real need to support individuals and communities who are dealing with the physical and psychological effects of sexual violence.  In May 2011, we began a project that provides free medical treatment for victims of sexual violence while also educating communities about the importance of seeking treatment as quickly as possible after an attack. This project is supported by the E.C. Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection and private donors.

As part of the project, Medair has helped develop and train a network of 387  local volunteers—including 40  community health workers—to counsel survivors of sexual violence. “These are people are well-known in the community and can be trusted to respect the dignity of the survivors,” says Dr. Olivier Ng’adjole, Medair project manager.

We have provided the network with training on how to talk to the survivors, to guide them through their ordeal, and help them re-integrate back into society. “I attended Medair’s psychosocial training because I saw that there was an opportunity to help these survivors,” says nurse attendant Mbizole. “I had witnessed women from the community who had been treated at the clinic after being raped. No one counselled them and they were never the same. They looked sad, reserved, and dislocated from society. I realised we had to do something, and I am happy Medair is ready to help.”

Overcoming Stigma
Medair has trained a network of 387 volunteers to offer counseling and education in their own communities.

Medair has trained a network of 387 volunteers to offer counseling and education in their own communities.

After Marie was sexually assaulted at knifepoint, she was left bruised, bleeding, and traumatised. “I was in anguish. I did not want to go home because I did not know what my husband would think,” she said.

A woman she met on the road carried her to the clinic in Ndedu, where her wounds were treated and she received essential medical treatment. Nurse Mbizole was at the clinic and he provided counselling to Marie and then accompanied her home to explain the incident to her husband.  

“Marie was completely traumatised and demoralised when she was brought here,” said Mbizole. “But I can see her getting back to her normal self again. I have been counselling her and her husband. He has also been affected. He is sad and unusually quiet.”

Even though sexual violence is so prevalent in D.R. Congo, survivors are often shunned by their families and communities. In extreme cases they become complete outcasts.

“The problem,” says Mbizole, “is a lack of awareness. “People are not aware that they can get help. Some do, but fear what society will think of them once their story comes out in the open. So they choose to live in seclusion, traumatised by what has happened to them.”

Helping to Bring Change
Medair staff provide free medical treatment for victims of sexual violence.

Medair staff provide free medical treatment for victims of sexual violence.

As the scourge of sexual violence continues in D.R. Congo, we are continuing to work alongside the affected community to help ease and heal survivors’ physical and psychological suffering.

“Before Medair’s intervention, the clinic received survivors of sexual violence but we would not discuss what happened to them,” says Nurse Mbizole. “As a result, most of these women returned home as traumatised as they were when they came to the clinic.

“This will change,” he concludes. “We have been trained to counsel survivors to help them through the trauma of what they have been through. This assistance will be of great help to the population.”

[1] Not her real name
[2]
  www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/08/AR2007090801194.html
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From June 2011 through January 2012, Medair treated 248 survivors of sexual violence. More than half of them arrived at a Medair-supported clinic within the recommended 72-hour timeframe.
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Medair’s support for survivors of sexual violence in D.R. Congo is financed by the E.C. Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection and private donors.

Read more about Medair’s work in D.R. Congo.

This web update was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.

 

 



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