Healing and Restoring Dignity to Survivors of Sexual Violence


GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Allen Clinton and Jackie Kiernan

Florance Kwinja picked up her basket filled with corn meal and beans and headed to the market outside of Goma. It's a bus commute the widow and mother of eight never used to think twice about. It was just another chore she did to earn money for her family. But it was anything but routine as the memories of the last time she made the trip two years ago come flooding back.

"We were ambushed by a group of combatants," Florance says. "They held me down and began to rape me, one by one. I was convinced I would die that day. I stopped living."

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rape is routinely used as a weapon of war. Help and justice are hard to find in a country with one of the world's worst poverty rates and mass corruption. To cope with the terror, families regularly flee their home villages. Separated from their families and livelihoods, women and children turn to rummaging for scraps of food and a simple roof to sleep under. Extreme poverty and a loss of dignity have damaging effects in their lives.

Florance, 48, became a widow in 2003 when her house was ransacked and husband, a successful merchant, was killed. Having no savings, she and her children fled their remote village to the town of Goma. Florance worked tirelessly for the next few years to make money to feed and clothe her children. Then the rape happened and she fell into deep depression, an event all too common for women in the Congo. People who Florance considered her friends no longer greeted her. Shamed and scared to return to work, the once proud woman says she could no longer look people in the eyes. When things couldn't seem to get worse, two of her eight children went missing. After three years, Florance didn't think she would ever find them alive.

To understand what is happening here, you have turn back the clock to 1994, when the genocide that claimed nearly one million lives in neighboring Rwanda spilled over into Congo. Since then, the Congolese army, rebels and home-grown militias have been fighting over power and land, which is rich in gold, diamonds and coltan, a sought-after mineral vital to the manufacture of mobile phones and other popular consumer electronics. The result has been the deadliest conflict since World War II. Nowadays the most frequent casualties of war are women. Because women farm the fields and care for children, it's not uncommon to hear that when a woman is raped, her entire family and community are destroyed. Over 82 percent of displaced people turn to host communities and organizations like CARE for support. Only a fraction of families make it to under-funded cramped camps, where they depend on basic aid from the United Nations and other humanitarian groups.

"Women here are in deep pain," says Yawo Douvon, country director for CARE in the Congo. "But it's not just the type of physical pain that can be repaired in a hospital. It's psychological pain that you can't see that takes more time to heal."

Despite there being a constitutional law condemning rape and sexual violence, and newly formed mobile courts that help convict perpetrators, more work is needed to foster representative government and rule of law to bring more perpetrators of human rights violations to justice and ensure the protection of all women. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 44 percent of perpetrators of sexual violence in the Congo are now civilians.

As women seek support for their plight to overcome gender biases, there are organizations trying to help vulnerable people get back on their feet, including rape survivors and demobilized male combatants. CARE's Espoir de Demain (Hope for Tomorrow) project organizes support groups and teaches people how to make shoes, how to cut hair – skills they can use to earn money and a chance for a whole new life.

Florance jumped at that chance. She signed up to learn to be a hairdresser, a trade almost exclusively reserved for men. Whatever difficulties she would face to break gender barriers, she knew things would change for the better. "It was as if someone had thrown me a rope to help me climb out of a deep, dark hole," she says, explaining that her children would be able to have a "normal life" once she launched her own business. "It's a good business to be in because people always need haircuts."

More importantly, Florance says she chose this trade to stay in one place and not be as vulnerable to potential attackers.

After finishing the training, Florance opened her own business in June, 2011 CARE provided her with a generator, hair cutting supplies, mirrors, lamps and other necessities to get her started. Nervous, with clippers in hand, she says she remembered to cut up instead of down like her instructor showed her when cutting the hair of her first clients. She charges 30 cents for most haircuts but favors braiding hair.

Healing and Restoring Dignity to Survivors of Sexual Violence image 1
Photo by Allen Clinton

The boy sitting in her chair today was extra special. He is one of Florance's two eldest sons. Both boys had been reunited with her by the Red Cross after years of separation. They have also received skills training through CARE to become a carpenter and plumber.

Hope is not something you'd expect Congo's rape survivors like Florance to still cling to. But they do.

Looking at Florance today you could not recognize her past suffering through the proud smile on her face. She says, "I've had a lot of deception in my life. Clients, visitors and CARE are my new family," People in her neighborhood have begun greeting her again. And Florance, looking them in the eyes, greets them back.