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Hands clap and fingers snap as a group of women and men watch CARE staff Rose Vive Lobo’s lips and respond to her questions.
“What does sexual violence mean? Do you know different forms of such violence? What are women’s and men’s rights and obligations?”
Twenty women and men have been selected in each of three displacement camps in Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. After several months of escalating violence, more than 150,000 people have been newly displaced, uprooted from their communities and mostly left to themselves in spontaneous displacement sites. To prevent and care for survivors of sexual and gender based violence, CARE trains community educators, both men and women. They will share their knowledge within the communities to help break the taboo and the stigma these types of violence can bring upon survivors and their families. Husbands, families, and communities often marginalize and discriminate against survivors because of the shame they are believed to bring. As a result of the fear of isolation and stigma, survivors seldom dare to speak about their experience and hardly ever reach out for help. CARE works with women and men to change their attitudes and views about sexual and gender-based violence to break the cycle of violence and discrimination against women and girls.
The topic is not new to the group; they all either have experienced some kind of sexual or gender-based violence or know someone who has. This is as much a problem in the camps as it is in the villages where people have fled from. Women and girls face the threat of being raped when they venture out away from the camp or the village to look for firewood, but domestic rape is common as well, yet less talked about. Congo also knows other forms of gender-based violence, the topic of today’s training session, and the group members share their own experiences, some hesitantly, others more freely.
Many forms and norms of violence
Violence and discrimination comes in many shapes and sizes. CARE trainer Rose explains that privileging sons over daughters when it comes to education and heritage is not fair. The group members first react with consternation, but as the discussion takes off, more and more agree that this treatment hinders the economic success a woman can have in her life. One of the women stands up and explains with a quiet and sad voice that she could not find any words when her daughters asked her one day why they had not been educated while their brothers had. An elderly woman also speaks up and says: “I took the decision to educate my daughters because it is through them that their own children will benefit as well.” However, she adds that she lacked the money to send her daughters beyond the first years of primary school.
The men and women participate enthusiastically in the discussions. Those who can write take notes, and others listen attentively and share their own experiences and opinions. As the group takes a short break, 32-year old Patrick tells us: “I have learned a lot during the last two days and I will share it with everyone in the camp.” He adds, “In my family, my sisters didn’t inherit anything. I know now that this is also a sort of violence against women.”
19-year old Aline, mother of two, expresses a similar point: “Before the training, I knew that rape existed, but I didn’t know the different types of sexual violence. I also learned that it mainly happens to women who wander off into the forest on their own. I want to use what I have learned here today to tell people how to protect themselves from violence.”
“If ever I am in a situation of being attacked, I would have two reactions”, Aline says: “Fleeing, and denouncing the perpetrator! I would tell the first person I meet what has happened and would try to make sure that he is being arrested.”
With these powerful role models, sexual and gender-based violence will, over time, hopefully become less acceptable and women more respected in eastern Congo. Survivors of rape will also have more confidence to talk about their experience and reach out for help, which will allow them to receive the necessary medical and psychological care. Changing practices and norms takes time, but it starts with community educators as these 20 women and men who are determined to share their knowledge and lead the way.
December 17, 2012
Sarah Zingg, CARE DRC