BY Ryan McDougall | February 21 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

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Meet the DRC women who survived sexual violence with SCIAF’s help

In a special report from the Democratic Republic of Congo for SCIAF's Wee Box Appeal, Ryan McDougall meets survivors of rape and sexual violence and discovers how they are beginning to regain control of their lives.

Survivors of rape and sexual violence in central Africa remain in desperate need of our help. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country about eight times the size of the UK with a population of 83 million, thousands of women have been raped, and live each day with few rights in a country where only fear and lawlessness rule following the Second Congo War.

DR Congo today has a visible lack of infrastructure and is subject to skirmish conflict by upwards of 120 different rebel militias competing for its rich natural resources.

Rape has long been a weapon of war, but DRC rebel fighters use sexual violence to destroy families and clear territory they aim to control. Caked in dirt and filth, the militias are known for their scruffy appearance and many seek to threaten by wearing no clothing on their lower bodies.

The extent of sexual violence is horrifying, with the UK Home Office estimating that in the South Kivu region of DR Congo, with a population of 5.3million, similar to that of Scotland, at least 40 per cent of women have been affected.

 

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Angela

The beliefs of DR Congo’s strongly patriarchal society adds to their torment by condemning survivors to a life of social isolation, deeming the survivors to have been tainted and somehow shamed.

One such woman is Angela, 29, whose life was shattered six years ago. When she was 18, Angela married her loving husband and quickly the two built a strong family unit of three happy children.

Her husband found a very good job in a brewery, earning $500 a month.

Eventually, when Angela was 23 and her husband was 29, they decided to leave the city, return to their home village and start up their own brewing business. At this point, the couple were expecting their fourth child.

Devastation

Just three weeks later, her life as she knew it was destroyed after a gang of rebels entered the village at night and began to terrorise the villagers.

In an act of desperation, one villager told the rebels of Angela’s family’s wealth, and they in turn broke in and forced her children to watch as they raped her one by one and murdered her husband.

Angela, not her real name, said: “They pushed my husband to the floor. There were nine of them and they all raped me while I was three months’ pregnant. My husband was shot. They thought he had died but he didn’t, and when they saw he was alive they slaughtered him.”

She sobbed and buried her face in her hands. She then revealed that as she lay in unimaginable pain, with her children looking on, one of the rebels slit her husband’s throat, leaving him to bleed to death.

Torment

Head lowered, she recalled: “The children were asleep, but they woke them up to make them watch. They saw everything.”

After the rebels left, Angela immediately called for help from her fellow villagers who took her to hospital. But her torment didn’t end there, as she later received further terrible news.

“Three months afterwards, during a medical check-up, they diagnosed me with HIV,” she said, crying even more painfully than before.

“And now I am weak and I have to take tablets.”

Stigma

Angela also faces persecution in her own community, as the social stigma surrounding survivors of rape and sexual violence is widespread.

“Even in the community I am not at ease,” she said. “People are talking about me and I don’t live in peace. I am stigmatised, and so are my children. The children feel insecure and sometimes refuse to eat. If they hear a loud bang they start trembling. Other children say to them, ‘your father was killed and you mother was raped.’ And they say: ‘She is HIV so maybe you are too.’ They don’t play with my children in case they contaminate them.”

SCIAF

Since it started working in the DRC, SCIAF has gradually been helping Angela to improve her life and through local partners, has provided her with medical care, trauma counselling, antiretrovirals and the means to start up a small business selling doughnuts.

Initially, she could earn 10,000 Congolese Francs (£5) a day, but now that others in her area are also selling doughnuts, competition has cut her earnings back to the equivalent of around £1.50 a day. Due to her fragile health, she can’t cultivate her field as she has little strength left and can’t afford to pay someone to work for her, let alone afford school fees for her children.

She said her Catholic Faith helped give her the strength to go on, and that SCIAF was working to improve her situation and give her the quality of life she deserves.

 

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Sylvia

Sylvia, 41, is the other face of 2020’s Wee Box Appeal, and her story is every bit as harrowing as Angela’s.

She had a good life in her village, with enough to eat and fruitful harvests each year.

Her life changed in a matter of moments in 1998 when the war hit her village. The mother of three was searching for food in a field when a gang of eight armed rebels appeared.

She stood and watched in shock as fellow villagers, her friends, were gunned down as they tried to run to safety. The rebels seized Sylvia, forcing her to leave behind her husband, children and then two-month-old baby. She would not return for four years, during which time she was repeatedly abused.

Abuse

She recalled: “They made me walk and they hit me on the back with the butts of their guns.

“I left everything. If you said you were tired, they would say ‘OK, you want to rest?’ and they would shoot you. I saw two people shot like this. We were all afraid.

“Those who refused to have sex were killed and their bodies fed to the pigs. I saw so many people who died I don’t even remember a number.”

After months of regular beatings and serious sexual assault, the rebel commander forced her to marry him.

She eventually managed to escape and walked for about a month until she finally managed to reach her home village.

After everything she had been through, however, it turned out that Sylvia’s woes had only just began, as she was told the newborn she had left behind four years prior had died.

Rebuilding lives

“I don’t know how my child died,” she cried. To her shock, her husband had also remarried. With the support of SCIAF and its local partners, however, she now has her own business selling vegetables and is the secretary of her local savings and loans group.

Sylvia received trauma counselling and has been able to save up $230, and even had enough to buy a new roof for her house. She said she could ‘kiss’ whoever brought SCIAF into her life.

 

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Chloe

Chloe, 39, was in the forest looking for firewood when her life was destroyed. She had gone to see her grandparents and was collecting firewood when rebels kidnapped her and asked for $3,000 from her parents in ransom. They couldn’t afford the cost, so she was forced to go with them as a slave.

She tried to escape their clutches, but was caught and brutally punished. “They found me, raped me and I fell pregnant,” she said. “The one who saw me trying to escape made me his wife.”

She gave birth to a baby boy from the rape—meaning she also had another mouth to feed. Eventually, the rebels she was with came into conflict with a group of government soldiers.

Kidnapped

“When the government reached us they asked the rebels to join them,” she said, meaning she and her ‘husband’ were taken to a military base where he was trained.

Her abuser refused to let her out of his sight.

“I was not free when the government took us. Wherever I was going he was right behind me. I had a hard life there, I couldn’t even get new clothes,” she said.

Shortly afterwards he was sent off to war and, by chance, Chloe’s life took a turn for the better.

She said: “He was shot dead at war and after he died his friend gave me some money.”

Hope

With the money and no ties to the former rebel turned solider, she left and returned to her village, only to find her problems had only just begun. Upon hearing her plight, the villagers persecuted her, locking her in her house, which she was unable to leave. She says it felt like she was in ‘prison.’

SCIAF’s local partners eventually found her, freeing her from the chains of oppression and granting her a new lease of life.

They gave her medical care, trauma counselling, seeds, animals and a field in which to grow crops.

Breaking down stigma

“Now I can say my life has become better, and I have met a man who has received [gender] training,” she smiled. The training provided by SCIAF aims to break down the stigma attached to survivors of sexual violence. While Chloe’s new partner loves her very dearly, others have made his life difficult, insisting that she is unclean because she had been raped. However, Chloe said her new husband has stood up to those who would berate him, saying: “I know what I am doing. I love this lady, do not harass me.”

How you can help

Please support SCIAF’s WEE BOX BIG CHANGE appeal. Thousands of women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo need your help right now. Decades of conflict have left a legacy of brutality and lawlessness in many areas. SCIAF is working with local partners to provide medical care so they can get treatment for their injuries, trauma counselling, legal assistance so they can prosecute their attackers, and help to become financially independent so they can support themselves and their families. GIVE NOW at www.sciaf.org.uk/weebox. This year, your £1 = £2. Give before May 20 and your donation will be doubled by the UK government.

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