From The Staff
Democratic Republic of Congo
- Julienne Kitumaini M'Kasamira
- Alice Kiza Nahayo
- Christine Karumba's Letter to the Editor, October 2008
- Judithe Registre's Journal, June 2004
- Judithe Registre's Journal, March 2005
Julienne is a 53-year-old mother of seven. She and her husband live in Bukavu with their two daughters and five sons. Since 2006, Julienne has worked within the Women for Women program to rebuild her life after being displaced due to violence in her home territory of Walungu. Today she works for Women for Women International-DRC (WfWI-DRC) as a vocational skills trainer in soap-making. Hers is a story of success and overcoming great obstacles to become the self-sufficient provider for her family she is today.
Julienne and her family are originally from a farming village in Walungu territory located south of Bukavu. Walungu and the surrounding South Kivu have been hit especially hard by violence, especially sexual violence against women, brought on by armed militias roving Eastern DRC. As violence and insecurity persisted, Julienne and her husband fled Walungu and moved to Bukavu. Unable to find work, her husband was forced to continue farming in his home village and travel between Walungu and Bukavu for his safety. This placed an enormous burden on Julienne. Times were hard and money was scarce. Julienne lived in fear for her husband’s life. She operated a small business selling onions, palm oil and peanuts at the Mulungulungu, Panzi market with a capital of only $5. She was able to maintain at least one meal per day, but the strain was great as she attempted to put all her children through school.
In February 2006, Julienne enrolled in the Women for Women International-DRC (WfWI-DRC) program where she received training in small business development. She learned the value of working as a team with her sisters in the WfWI-DRC program, who devised a scheme to invest $5 of their sponsorship funds in each other’s businesses, providing a lump-sum of $80 to each woman on rotation. This investment allowed her to build her small business and meet other household needs. She invested some of the money in a Culinary Arts training program, for which she received a Program Attendance Certificate with distinction as one of the best students in her class. She used the training to teach her daughter the culinary skills she learned, adding value to her home and investing in her daughter’s future.
After her first year with Women for Women, Julienne made the decision to abandon her small business to pursue a more economically-feasible option. Having received vocational skills training in soap-making to diversify her income generation, she reached out to a friend who helped her to find customers for her soap-making business. Eventually, Julienne secured the patronage of the Saint Etienne School which she now supplies twice a month with her soaps. She’s making $10 per sale which is enough to feed her family and send her kids to school.
Last year, a position opened up as a Soap-Making Trainer with WfWI-DRC. An experienced soap-maker who understood the value of working as a group with other Congolese women, Julienne was motivated to apply for the position and was hired by Women for Women in July 2008. Proud of her achievement, Julienne said, “I am gaining my life without a lot of difficulties; I have a salary which comes every month.”
Every month Julienne is able to put $50 into savings after covering all of her family’s needs. This has helped her purchase equipment to expand and improve her business. She is well-respected by her family and community. Julienne’s health has improved too – her self-confidence shines through her physical self. Her face appears to have grown younger in the past three years!
When you meet Alice Kiza Nahayo, you’ll find her full of glowing optimism. As a successful, joyful, and confident literacy trainer for Women for Women International-DRC, it’s hard to imagine the tragedies she has endured throughout her life. Yet Alice has had a long journey – she actually started out in the Women for Women International family as a participant. The depth of her personal triumph is apparent when she tells her story of survival from an orphan and victim of gender-based violence and rebirth as a loving mother and teacher.
Born in Burundi in 1968, Alice was orphaned in early childhood and raised under the harsh realities of a racist headmistress in an orphanage torn by Hutu and Tutsi tribal tensions. Brutal tribal conflicts govern the region where Alice, a Tutsi minority, grew up, and eventually lead to the horrifying Rwandan genocide of 1994. Alice experienced harsh discrimination in the orphanage that she is unable to describe to this day. She married as a young woman, eager to leave the hardships of her childhood behind, and became optimistic that she would finally feel at home in a place where she belonged. Alice was happy with her four children and felt that her life would be forever changed.
But after the birth of her fourth child, Alice’s husband began to beat and insult her daily. Her husband’s family mistreated her as well. One day, Alice’s husband beat her so badly that her right arm was broken; he set fire to her high school diploma, her prized possession and a symbol of her past achievements. With nowhere to turn, Alice escaped to Uvira, a city the province of South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). She fled with her youngest son, who was quite ill at the time and for whose safety she was also very concerned.
Although she was now safe from the violence and discrimination of her husband and his family, Alice had few options for survival upon arrival in Uvira. As refugees, she and her son were given no assistance. As a woman and a Tutsi, options for employment were difficult to come by for Alice. They were without food, shelter, and her son’s poor health condition was worsening by the day. Eventually he died and Alice buried him in their new home. She was devastated. She felt that there was nothing left for her. That’s when Women for Women International-DRC (WfWI-DRC) found Alice.
Alice began as a participant in the WfWI-DRC program in March 2008, receiving direct financial aid, rights awareness and vocational skills training and psychosocial support from other participants, trainers, and her sponsor. At first, Alice was shy, sickly, and incapable of sharing her experiences with the group. Over time, the warm and familial atmosphere shared by the women participants in the Women for Women program drew Alice out of her shell and allowed her to become more confident and more willing to speak about and overcome her past tragedies. Her favorite subject was that of women’s rights, which sparked her interests and allowed her to regain her self-esteem.
Alice’s new-found confidence gave her the courage to share her knowledge and empower other participants in the WfWI-DRC program. She began to teach the other women about the realities of domestic violence, herself a survivor of life-threatening beatings by her husband. She excelled in her vocational skills training in culinary arts. The program staff considered her to be one of the most dynamic members of her group, a fact confirmed when she was invited to train fellow women in the program. She is now a literacy trainer for other women in the WfWI-DRC program.
“I am very happy to have been socially integrated in the community of my refuge,” Alice said of her experience with Women for Women in Uvira. “I am able to earn an income to sustain myself and my daughter.” The women she trains with are often heard to say that they hope to become like Alice one day. She has come such a long way from tribal discrimination in the orphanage, violence and humiliation at her husband’s hand, and extreme poverty and social exclusion as a refugee; her inner strength to overcome these many hardships is an inspiration. That she is now helping and inspiring other women to rebuild their lives is the ultimate testament to her strength and success.
It Takes Men To Stop Rape in Congo
To the Editor:
Re “Rape Victims’ Words Help Jolt Congo into Change” (News article, Oct. 18):
The fact that rape victims are breaking the silence around the horrific sexual violence endemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is crucial for building peace and stability in the country. But without involving Congolese men, it will be difficult to address this problem successfully. Women have started to speak out on their devastating experiences. Men, by in large, have remained mute while playing a strong part in stigmatizing and excluding rape survivors.
Recently, more work has been done to engage men and encouraging them to change attitudes towards sexual violence and survivors of rape. Our Men’s Leadership Program, for example, appeals to the strong responsibility men have in the patriarchic Congolese society. Men are encouraged to understand women’s rights as a contribution to strong and successful family structures and recognize the vast implications of rape and other forms of gender-based violence.
Our data shows that including male perspectives builds community-wide understanding of preventing and overcoming sexual violence. Although more research is necessary, our experience also indicates that men have emerged from this program as using their position of influence to advocate against sexual violence and social exclusion of survivors.
Honorata Kizende, who was featured in your story, came to us a survivor of sexual slavery and gang rape. After graduating from our year-long program of rights-based, life skills training, she is now a Women for Women International program trainer, helping others to rebuild their lives and speak out against gender-based violence in the country’s protracted war. Honorata has come a long way from victim to survivor to active citizen. Now Congolese men need our assistance to start their own transformation.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo
Women for Women International
It’s with great pleasure that I write to you once again. Human rights violations in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo continue unabated as evidence by the reports of NGOs, the medi a and different actors working in the region. The rural population in the province lives in fear as communities continue to be aggressed, particularly women. Walungu, Kabare, Kalehe and Uvir a are cases in point. We have witnessed a rise in the number of Internally Displaced Persons in urban areas such as Bukavu. These developments alarm both the humanitarian community and the Congolese population. There has been an increase in request for ransom for as much as $100 for individuals abducted in the forest, which are often female. While $100 may seem small to be paid for a life, for many Congolese this is a large sum of money that they simply do not have. When a ransom is asked, if not paid, the individual is killed. Other acts of violence include two women accused of sorcery being dragged naked through the streets by policemen and a woman who was killed by her husband for participating in International Women’s Day activities.
Women from our program were featured in an article in O, The Oprah Magazine, titled “Postcards from the Edge,” and also on the Oprah Show. Women were able to share their compelling stories of personal struggle, which led to an incredible response of women wanting to help. We have been able to vastly expand our program to another 1,400 women, including women in rural communities beyond Bukavu. In so doing, we responded to a great need that was not being met and reinforced our commitment to help build the capacity of socially excluded women in eastern Congo to reclaim their lives. Our staff and participants have more than quadrupled since January!
The communities in which we are working are desperately in need of our assistance. One community, Bagira, is completely devoid of economic activity. It was constructed by the Belgians during colonialism for their servants and employees. When the DRC gained independence in 1960 and the Belgians left the country, the people in Bagira were left to fend for themselves, with little economic opportunity. The unemployment rate has remained extraordinarily high.
Another community, Cimpuda, is suffering from extreme poverty and a high unemployment rate. Many of the women carry stones for construction companies to make a living, a very hard way to earn an income. This type of work has had a detrimental impact on the health of these women. Carrying stones, sands and other heavy loads often yield in miscarriage and other health problems. And, to make matters worse, the war and its aftermath has increased the level of food insecurity and malnourishment in this community.
In a third new community that we are working in, Igoki, many of the men are unemployed, which has led to a high rate of alcoholism. This in turn has lead to an increased risk of domestic violence for women who are already survivors of a violent war. Finally, the Kavumu, Kajangu and Kabare communities all have many factors in common, including being ravaged and destabilized by the war. Many of the women we have enrolled in these communities are rape survivors or internally displaced persons who were forced to flee their villages during the war.
In February, we conducted a market assessment to better inform the vocational training skills and income generation aspect of the program and decided on the initial areas for vocational training skills. The areas include sewing, basket making, tie- dyeing, knitting, soap making, baking and cooking cassava paste called “Chikwangue.” During the upcoming months, we expect an increase in the number of program participants and are planning to expand our office space and employ new staff to serve the new participants accordingly. We anticipate the launching of the vocational training skills and income generation program, which includes a ceramic training studio. A literacy program will also be launched; there is currently a literacy rate of %54.1 amongst women in the Congo. We will be also conducting a survey as part of the men’s leadership program to ascertain men’s perception of women rape survivors.
Many women in our program have already begun to make significant changes in their lives. One participant, Francoise, is a mother of three girls and one boy. Francoise lives with her children in a room that she rents for $3 per month. On the June 6 th, 2004 during the war, she was selling ginger juice on the streets when she ran into some soldiers. They said they wanted to buy some juice from her. One of the soldiers pulled her aside and raped her. She was selling juice during the conflict because she had no other way to feed her family. After being raped, she became ashamed and depressed. She then learned about Women for Women International and joined the program. She has come to realize that she was a person of value. She needed to regain her strength to continue to care for her family. Her participation in the training has been very constructive.
The sponsorship funds helped to support her family. She has started selling juice again. With her sponsorship funds, she bought a basin for making more juice. She is now able to pay her children’s school fees and buy food. Also, she is now able to pay her rent without much difficulty. She is saving some of her funds so that she and her children can move from the single room to an apartment with at least two rooms.
In January, we launched a program called, “Men’s Leadership: Addressing the Communal Impact of Violence Against Women,” thanks to a grant from UNIFEM. The program targets men community leaders as “gate keepers” of traditions and customs to ensure women rape survivors can fully be reintegrated back into their communities. Rape as a weapon of war was intended not only to dehumanize the woman raped, but to destroy the entire community. After working with many rape survivors, we discovered a consistent theme of how they were being shunned by their spouses for various reasons, including community and family pressure. We decided that it was important to address this element if these women are to be socially reintegrated back into their communities.
The last eight months have been personally and professionally challenging for me. Working closely with the women in the program has provided me with the painful insight of the suffering of these women, but it has also shown me how much hope there is through women’s determination to rebuild their communities. They have truly inspired me. We will continue to provide every possible service to help meet the needs of women in the DRC in their efforts to secure a better future.
On behalf of the DRC program participants and our staff, I thank you for your continued support.
Judithe Registre, Country Director
Women for Women International—DRC
I trust that this letter finds you well. So many emotions and ideas are crossing my mind after only a month spent in the Eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I don’t know where to begin or what to share with you of my initial impressions of Bukavu. Bukavu is located on Lake Kivu. It is amazingly beautiful, but its population seems fragmented and troubled by the war and more than 30 years of dictatorship.
I was unsure what I would find DRC to be like, as the country has been at war since 1996. In 2003, after a three-year negotiation process, a peace accord was signed by the various warring factions, ending the long conflict. Given the political climate in central Africa, I knew one thing: the peace process was far from being implemented.
My first month in Bukavu was marked by hope and despair. On May 26th, during my third week in the country and as we were in the midst of setting up our office, war broke out again in the DRC. It was a surreal experience. A friend of mine working for another nongovernmental organization was raped and her housemate was shot in the leg. This horrendous crime happened in a house I was to share with them. I was scheduled to move into the house on Wednesday May 25th, one day before my friends were attacked. However, for various reasons I decided to postpone my move until the following weekend. I was unbelievably lucky -- delaying my move saved me from being another victim of the war in DRC.
It is amazing the speed at which your life can change. I spent two days in an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp located at the compound of the United Nations Mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC). One minute I was in a house, where I had a fridge, a bed, and a bathroom. The next, I was standing in line for food rations for IDPs and refugees. I had to sleep on the floor, the same floor I would use the following day to set up the fire that would warm the food I would eat. It all happened so quickly. I had no time to think about what was happening or what I was experiencing -- not even the time to be afraid. I had to stay calm and collected. As the situation was unfolding, it was imperative to keep abreast of the developments so that I would be able to make informed decisions as to whether I should leave or remain at the camp. Negotiations between the UN and the dissidents who had taken control of Bukavu were not progressing and the influx of people arriving at the UN compound was increasing. Essentially, I was faced with making a life or death decision -- leaving the camp and trying to reach neighboring Rwanda or staying.
I finally decided to leave the camp and was evacuated to Goma, another city in the eastern region of the DRC. From there, I found my way to Kigali, Rwanda by taking a private taxi. On the afternoon of Sunday, May 30th as I was arriving in Kigali from Goma, the war reached Goma and the borders to Rwanda were closed.
Throughout the entire first week of June, the war continued with the military going door to door, community to community, to terrorize, pillage and rape women. Almost everyone I knew was affected or knew someone who was affected by the atrocities. The Congolese population wants an end to what seems to them a senseless war. There was a time when, perhaps, people saw the justifications for the war, but this is no longer the case. No good has come with this war. The negative consequences of the ongoing conflicts have rendered the Congolese population restless and ever poorer. The callous disregard of the world to the struggle of the people of the DRC is distressing. How it is possible that so little attention is paid to what is going on in the DRC in the age of democracy and conflict prevention? Women’s burdens are even heavier. Women’s status has been reduced to between that of human and animals. I kept asking myself why? No human being should be required to carry the load they do, both physically and emotionally. In addition to having lost their sense of self, having been sadistically violated, they cannot feed themselves, thereby compounding their vulnerability.
Prior to this latest outburst of violence, we had met with a number of international, and national organizations and local associations who were working with rape victims in order to find out what was being done to alleviate the suffering of these women and to identify participants for our program. We found that the primary focus of aid to women rape victims and survivors is medical assistance and counseling. However, beyond health concerns there is a need to attend to women’s basic economic needs. Everything has been taken away from these women. They are dying a silent and slow death because their calls for help are not being answered. To make matters worst, their own communities shun them, leaving them with absolutely nothing.
There is no organization providing the type of comprehensive support that deals with the women’s urgent economic needs in addition to their long-term social and political ones. These are vital to helping women reclaim control of their lives in the DRC. Our multi-tiered program of direct aid, emotional support, rights awareness education, vocational skills training and income generation is ideal for the DRC. It addresses the immediate and long-term needs of these women by providing economic, social, and political support as the basis for ensuring women’s rights.
My time in the DRC will be challenging. Despite my experiences this first month, I am not discouraged. I believe in what we are doing and I know that we can have an impact on the women participating in our program and help them in the process of reclaiming their lives. As I leave you, I ask that you continue to be part of the network helping women in the DRC find their voices and inner strength. Despite the systematic process to destroy their spirits, they will be the ones to rebuild the DRC. Your support and willingness to acknowledge their humanity will be a vital force in helping them regain their dignity. I look forward to staying in touch with you as we continue expanding our efforts in the DRC. Very truly yours,
Judithe Registre, Country Director
Women for Women International—DRC