A journey of discovery

PENELOPE BLACKWELL

SCIAF’s Director of Public Engagement explains how travelling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo for this year’s WEE Box Appeal changed the way she saw the world.

I never planned to go to the Congo.

When I joined SCIAF in January last year, I realised how vital our annual WEE BOX Lenten appeal is. And I very quickly grasped from talking to our excellent staff that the work we are doing in the eastern DR Congo, which forms the basis of this year’s appeal, helping survivors of sexual assault, was incredibly important.

But I didn’t imagine I’d be seeing it for myself. Then Sarah, who pulls together all the materials that make up the WEE BOX appeal, announced she was pregnant. Happy news, but it meant there was a big hole in our WEE BOX trip to DR Congo to gather stories, pictures and videos which we would share during the appeal. So I decided to go to help and see SCIAF’s inspiring work first hand.

SCIAF has had a long-standing programme in the eastern DR Congo providing support to women who’ve been raped. There are more than a million of them. Initially, sexual violence and rape was widely used as a weapon of war, but that behaviour has since become endemic.

Gathering the stories of women we work with is a really important way we can show supporters just how great an impact their donations have.

That said, I was still nervous before I went. The DR Congo is on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s list of the top 17 most dangerous countries to visit.

We travelled via Rwanda. I don’t have huge experience in Africa, so my impression was that it felt pretty chaotic. But there were tarmacked roads and most people were in European clothes. Then we crossed the border into DR Congo and the roads are almost non-existent, the buildings tired or damaged, and everything feels like it’s in total chaos. Still, there’s an intense energy in the air, and people dress in fabulous colours as they go about their lives, working incredibly hard just to get by – everyone seems to be carrying something on their heads to sell, from mattresses to vegetables.

I felt quite safe. We were travelling to a part of the world where the Church is very involved and we were going as agents of the Church, travelling with partners who are Congolese and know the situation intimately.

Wherever we went we always ensured we came back well before dusk; there was no travelling at night. The terrible stories of suffering we heard from many women often started, ‘It was after dark when the rebels attacked….’

The first place we went to was the office of our partners CJDP, the Justice and Peace organisation of the Archdiocese of Bukavu. We were hosted by Fr Justin, the head of the organisation, and Giselle, a programme manager and remarkable woman. We had a presentation about their work and then went straight out into the country to visit villages where they are working.

Those first two days we met women who were older, who had been raped and abducted shortly after the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 when many Hutus, who had been responsible for the genocide, fled into eastern DR Congo, starting decades of violence and instability. The women’s stories were horrendous; extremely violent rapes, violent abductions, and they had seen other people killed. Many were held captive for years.

The first person we spoke to, Sylvia, who features on this year’s WEE BOX, had been abducted and was away for four years. She was ‘lucky’ as she was pretty, so the leader of the rebel group that had abducted her made her his ‘wife’ and she was then protected. There were other women taken from her village and when they said they were tired, and asked to sit down, they were shot.

So we were looking at this beautiful scenery, these glorious hills and Sylvia told us her story, showing us where the rebels came from on the day she was taken. I felt strongly it was all happening right here in front of me. The marketplace where we were sitting was the front line where a battle was fought, and the many people who died were buried in mass graves a few hundred yards away.

Thanks to the programme we’ve been funding and working on for years, the lives of Sylvia and thousands of other women are better. They received counselling, medicine and surgery where needed. They’d joined savings and loan groups which have given them the wherewithal to have some chickens or pigs. They’d worked with the local chief to find some land, and the women grow different crops, including amaranth, which is this extraordinary vegetable we kept eating everywhere. It’s a bit like spinach, it’s delicious and it grows in a month so it’s a really good cash crop they can quickly get to market.

And, despite everything that’s happened to them, the women were saying their lives were better. Having been very poor and not knowing what would happen to them, they were eating three times a day, could pay for their children to go to school, and were building a better future for themselves and their families.

The next day we visited our medical partners BDOM in Katana Hospital, and there we met younger women whose experience of rape was much more recent.

The first young woman I spoke to, we’re calling her Angela, had been raped four years ago. She had been married, had four children, and loved her husband who was well off, earning $500 a month, a very good wage there. Then bandits had come to her house, shot her husband, and she was raped by nine men in front of her children and made HIV positive.

She received help through the programme, but was still really struggling to recover and support her children. And there seemed to be a clear divide between those women who had been raped in the first phase after the war, and suffered incredible trauma, but had since been through the programmes and their lives were on the up, and a lot more women who continue to be raped, who are still at that point where their lives are absolutely desperate. And they’ve come from positions where life was good, and now it’s not.

A complex situation

Violence is not a thing of the past. We met one woman who was raped a few months before we visited. Violence is related to the wider problems of the DR Congo – political instability and extreme poverty. It’s incredibly complex, but one driver of violence is the armed groups which are controlling the region’s huge mineral wealth and mining operations. There’s a huge amount of natural resources in eastern DR Congo, some of which is probably in your smartphone. It has proved to be a curse rather than a blessing for many.

Some of the mining is done by reputable companies. We saw a Canadian company out there, but there’s also a lot of prospecting. We heard often there are no jobs for the young. So young men go off into the hills and go prospecting, but there are literally hundreds of different rebel and armed groups out there, so the culture out is brutal. And when they come down into the villages, they loot and rape. One woman said her family were already so poor, but they took everything they had anyway.

How do you start again from that? It’s so hard and there’s no way without intervention and support, which is why we are there.

In addition to psychological and medical aid, and helping women rebuild their livelihoods, a big part of our work is trying to change attitudes towards women.

There was one interview with a man who had beaten his wife, called her useless. He had gone to a community meeting with a group of women who basically said to him ‘Why are you treating your wife like this, it’s not right’ – and he got the message.

He was now evangelising, his wife had since died and he was living with his son and daughter-in-law. He was castigating his son when he was disrespectful to his wife, saying ‘No you can’t do that – she is your equal’.

It was really good to know that message is getting out there that these things can change, especially in a part of the world where sexual violence has become normalised.

So many stories I heard will stick with me forever and made me determined to do something about it. It’s vital that we raise as much money as possible to help more women.

And with your generosity we will be able to provide thousands of women with healthcare, including surgery and trauma counselling, legal support to prosecute their attackers, and help to become financially independent.

Your support can make a huge difference. In that first village we went to there’s a little baby called SCIAF. I swear this is true. And when his parents chose the name, people asked them ‘Why did you choose that name? What does it mean?’ And they said: ‘We don’t know what it means elsewhere, but to us it means hope’.

Hou can help SCIAF to provide more hope to more families this Lent by supporting the WEE BOX appeal. You can donate by visiting the website at www.sciaf.org.uk

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