Victimized twice: DRC women rebound after war, rape
Rape victim Mwamini Zitonda, a mother of eight, was shunned by her husband and home community. She started a business selling dried fish and now earns double what she did as a farmer: $2 a day. (Darcy Wintonyk)
Published Monday, January 20, 2014 12:31PM PST
Last Updated Monday, January 20, 2014 12:39PM PST
Living in the lush mountainous region in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Wivine Mwbawa would spend hours each day walking through the forest to fetch water for her family.
It was on a routine daily run a year-and-a-half-ago when she was ambushed and raped by three soldiers. She returned home to find that rebels had slaughtered her mother, father and two brothers.
Traumatized, alone and without a dollar to her name, villagers helped out the 14-year-old with food and clothing – meagre offerings in an area where war hasn't just raged on the soil: rape, ritual killings and the abandonment of children and abduction of villagers are common atrocities against women and small children.
Wivine was raped two more times until she was taken in by a foster family several months later.
Her story is not unique in this area of the DRC, once heralded as the rape capital of the world when the conflict was at its worst two years ago. The situation hasn't greatly improved: Today, World Vision estimates 1,100 rapes occur monthly in the area and the perpetrators are usually the soldiers tasked with protecting the vulnerable and fragile population.
Now 16, Wivine's life changed when she was taken in by a centre for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. CAMPS (Centre d'Assistance Medico - Psychosocial) is a safe haven for women, run by NGOs and partially funded by World Vision. It’s helped more than 33,000 victims of rape since its inception 10 years ago.
It's a lifeline for women shunned by their husbands and kicked out of their homes after being sexually abused. The cycle can go on for generations. Children who are the product of rape are often discriminated against as much as their mothers.
“There is a huge stigma for women who are assaulted and raped, and how they are treated afterwards is as bad as the original act of violation,” World Vision Canada president Dave Toycen tells me after we visit the centre. “They need some kind of help to be able to have a future for them, for their families.”
Some women arrive at the centre in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their back. Others don't complete the long trek into town and die on the dusty road connecting the remote town with the surrounding mountainous villages.
Women who arrive are given immediate medical treatment and undergo assessment counselling. The centre helps with basic needs like clothing and health care for the 80 women and children in their charge at any given time. It offers legal support, but in a justice system so corrupt that rapists are often released without charges, few victims decide to prosecute their attackers.
A hand up, not a handout
The centre takes a holistic approach to healing: after a woman is physically sound, psycho-social support and counselling prepare her to re-integrate into society and, hopefully, reunite that with a family that may have rejected or shunned her.
The mission isn't a hand out -- it's a hand up. Women are provided with $200 for what's called an “economic start up” to begin their own business.
Rape victim Mwamini Zitonda, a mother of eight, came to Minova after she was shunned by her husband and home community. She started a business selling dried fish in market with her start up money, and now earns double what she did as a farmer: $2 a day.
"That $200 can save a life," she tells me through an interpreter. "It saved my life."
Through counselling she's let go of the hate she held in her heart for her husband, and is now focusing on the welfare of her children and building a future for them. Mwamini says her biggest hope is that other women can benefit from the program the way she did.
"I feel sad thinking of women that don't have the same help," she says. "It's so sad."
Toycen says programs where women are given help to start a business have a multiplier effect back into their communities. Women not only help their own families, but the families around them as well.
“The health of the children is so tied to the mother’s, so it’s extra important that women are supported. And they have a great track record to be entrepreneurs,” he says.
Sadly, support programs like CAMPS are few, and can't meet the demand of an area where many families are torn apart by sexual violence.
Centre staff have identified 600 women in the immediate community alone who need help: much more than their 80-person capacity. They’re hoping for the NGOs that fund the centre to advocate on a national level for more funding and support.
Despite being underfunded, there's no doubt the centre is making a difference. Through counselling and mediation, some women have even been reconnected with the husbands and families that shunned them.
Thanks to the startup capital, young Wivine, has a sewing machine and is training to be a tailor.
"Today when I see people who have gone through tough times and come out strong, I want to be that woman," she says through an interpreter. "I want to be that strong, and I think I will someday soon."