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Rape victims receive support in Congo's war-torn North Kivu

© 2008 The International Rescue Committee; first published by the IRC here.

North Kivu, Congo, 15 Feb 2008 -- When Marie (not her real name) was working in a field outside her home village in Congo's eastern North Kivu province, a man with an automatic rifle suddenly approached. Paralyzed with fear, the 20-year-old woman was dragged to the ground and brutally raped. After the attack, the man disappeared into the surrounding bush while Marie managed to get dressed and stagger home.

Women confide in IRC's Sarah Mosley (left) and Julie Gubanja (right), who assist survivors of sexual violence. Photo: Bob Kitchen/The IRC.
Photo: Bob Kitchen/The IRC
Women confide in IRC's Sarah Mosley (left) and Julie Gubanja (right), who assist survivors of sexual violence.

"My husband didn't understand," she says nearly a month after the attack. "When I told him that I had been raped he screamed at me. Then later, he left me."

Marie's fate is extremely common in war-torn eastern Congo, where the conflict between the Congolese army and the movement of rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and other militias has led to the displacement of some 425,000 people. While a peace agreement on 23 January kindled a spark of hope, fighting continues and, as usual, civilians continue to pay the highest price.

Through the IRC, Marie was put in touch with a local clinic where she received medical care, anti-retroviral drugs, emergency contraception and antibiotics. She was then referred to an IRC-trained councilor from whom she receives ongoing emotional support. While the scars will remain forever, Marie's healing has begun.

Prior to the arrival of the IRC, women survivors of rape in North Kivu received very little support, either medically or emotionally," explains Jennifer Melton, who manages the IRC's gender-based violence programs in North Kivu.

The IRC is now training local organizations to deal with survivors of sexual violence, as well as educating the community on the medical services available to women. Because rape victims are often stigmatized, the IRC also works hard to raise community awareness about their situation.

Living circumstances in the countryside expose women to a range of risks. In eastern Congo, women often have to walk long distances through isolated areas to collect water for themselves and their families. Jennifer Melton says that this frequently places women at risk of being victims of violence, particularly rape.

"It is when they leave their villages that they risk molestation, harassment, rape and beatings," Melton says. "It is extremely common not only in North Kivu, but across Congo."

In response, the IRC is helping people to safely collect water through the installation of rainwater harvesting systems, which save water into large storage tanks.

"This means that women no longer need to venture out into the bush to collect water," Melton says. "It will help protect many women from going through what happened to Marie."

Related Links

The International Rescue Committee home page

Rape in Congo, a special report by the IRC on gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo

With Worsening Violence Comes Staggering Reports of Rape, Oct 31, 2007