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Globally, one in three women experience violence in their lifetimes. On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women we look at how there is hope in the global fight, even in places like DR Congo where gender-based violence is all too common.
Warning : this article contains some stories of violence against women that some readers may find upsetting.
Edouine Kirere has steely eyes that hint at deep inner resilience. When she speaks, she does so with a calm but fierce determination. Edouine has seen and heard so much, working on the frontlines to support women affected by violence in conflict.
Here in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Edouine runs services for women in the remote north eastern province of Ituri, which has been affected by decades of brutal armed conflict. Rape has been used widely as a tactic by armed groups, and happens with alarming frequency.
Edouine tells some shocking stories of the women affected by violence. Stories of women who have sought safety, support and refuge at the Karibu medical centre, run by SOFEPADI, Trócaire’s local partner organisation.
One woman came to seek support at the centre after surviving a horrific experience. She had travelled to work at her farm for the day along with her daughter and a cousin. That day there was an attack on her village by one of the many armed groups operating in the region.
Five men appeared at her farm. The men killed her cousin and repeatedly assaulted both herself and her daughter over the coming days.
Fortunately, one of the perpetrators eventually helped the two to escape. They came to the Karibu centre and are now being supported, with medical care as well as psychological support. The daughter is being supported by SOFEPADI so she can continue her education. The situation is even more challenging as both mother and daughter became pregnant as a result of their ordeal.
Another harrowing case was of a woman who was sexually assaulted in 2017 by members of an armed group. Two years later, in 2019, the men returned and murdered her husband and child. They threw their bodies in the river. She was then beaten badly and as a result of this attack she lost her sight. Not surprisingly, she has had a severe psychological reaction to this experience.
Following the attack, SOFEPADI have provided her with medical support and paid for psychiatric care. Medical examinations have shown that her eyesight is physically fine, and the blindness has been caused by a psychological reaction. Thankfully, after receiving care she is now beginning to show signs of progress and recovery, and her sight is beginning to return to her.
Edouine says that these cases are common among women who live in areas affected by the ongoing armed conflict. “After the sexual violence, because of what they have gone through – women are traumatised and are broken” says Edouine. “Some of them also want to commit suicide, they do not want to live anymore”.
Yet thanks to the support of SOFEPADI, many of these women do regain hope and begin to rebuild their lives. Those who do recover can share their stories with other survivors in group therapy. This shows them that “they are not alone, and they can also get better”. Many gain strength from the fact that there are others who have survived and recovered from similar situations, and that they can begin to re-establish their lives.
Sexual violence is a significant problem in the country, over 1.9 million women in DRC have experienced rape during their life. Judges will often side with either the survivor or the perpetrator depending on how much they can pay.
As the armed conflict continues to affect Ituri province, the support and care that Edouine and her team provide are invaluable. As well as providing medical and psychological support, SOFEPADI also provides legal support to try and ensure perpetrators of attacks face justice.
Even some of their own staff in the centre are traumatised and as such, self-care for their team is really critical. Edouine says she continues to feel strong enough to continue her work when she sees the impact of the project.
“I am helping a survivor to come from being broken to a situation of hope and light – so this gives me strength”
November 25th marks the start of an annual campaign of 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence. It is a campaign around the world which calls for the elimination of violence against women and girls.
While the cases in DRC can be extreme, they are not unique. Violence against women is a problem faced by every single country in the world.
The global situation is stark:
As the world has had to retreat inside homes due to Covid lockdowns, research is emerging that violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has increased. The UN has called this the ‘shadow pandemic’, making an already existing crisis much worse.
This is why Trócaire continues our critical work on women’s empowerment programmes in 14 countries. Last year, these programmes supported 185,000 people.
Like in DRC, in many countries we provide psychological and legal support to survivors of violence. We also work with men and women to change attitudes and behaviours to prevent violence from happening in the first place. We also campaign for laws that protect women and respect their rights and dignity.
This Christmas, please consider a donation to support this important and empowering work. So that inspiring women like Edouine can continue to run their centres and provide hope and light to so many women.