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Speaking up Against Weaponizing the Shame of Sexual Violence

Life changed for Nabintu when Interahamwe rebels invaded her village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Her once peaceful life, which she shared with her husband and three children in a comfortable home, was viciously disrupted after she was raped in front of her family, kidnapped, and sold as a sex slave to the rebel group’s commander. When she was able to escape, pregnant and ill, and return to her village, Nabintu was shamed and rejected by her husband and community.

“When I arrived home, my husband said to me, ‘You are already the wife of an Interahamwe. I can no longer live with you. And you may be HIV positive.’” she says.

 “The man I loved kicked me out of our home.”

Because of her label as the wife of an Interahamwe, Nabintu struggled to find a support system that would accept her. After learning of Women for Women International, Nabintu enrolled in the Stronger Women, Stronger Nations (SWSN) program. In the program she found support and new friends. And, in addition to receiving training which enabled her to earn money and support her children, she learned to recognize her own value despite being ostracized from the community she once lived in, happily.

“The first topic, which was the most interesting for me, was that a woman should value herself. The trainer gave me a piece of advice that helped me a lot,” Nabintu says. “She asked me not to neglect myself, but to consider myself a person among others.”

Every day, WfWI’s programs and resources help women like Nabintu, who was shamed for her trauma, to realize their power, understand their value, and provide the knowledge to women survivors of sexual violence and their community that would change the perspectives influenced by stigma.

DRC SWSN Program
Women attending the Stronger Women, Stronger Nations program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo Credit: WfWI

According to the United Nations, sexual violence during war and conflict is a tactic used to destroy and terrorize communities. In communities with traditional and cultural views where rape is seen as an attack against a woman’s “honor, survivors are often left reeling from both the trauma of their experience and being viewed as “unclean” in the aftermath. In cases of conflict-related sexual violence, women can also face accusations of a willingness.

The stigmatization of conflict-related sexual violence negatively affects survivors’ relationships with their community, family, and partners. Women survivors are often marginalized by stigma and left without support for their physical and emotional well-being. Some women will even die before receiving medical attention after being raped due to stigma.

This was the experience of Mila, who was raped by a Russian soldier around the age of her 19-year-old son after her Ukrainian village was captured by soldiers during the ongoing war. She survived the brutal attack to see her village liberated from the soldiers, but her ordeal was not over. Rumors spread by Mila’s neighbors accused her of willingly having sex with her attacker, and she became isolated her from her community. Upon approaching the local authorities with evidence of the rape, her authorities asked why she didn’t resist.

“We never find any women who said ‘no’ to the Russian soldiers,” says Iryna Andreeva, the Co-Founder and Director of our Conflict Response Fund partner, The Andreev Foundation. “That’s because they are all dead.”

Yet, despite the gossip and accusations leveled against her, Mila has publicly spoken out and encouraged other women who have been attacked by the invading soldiers to share their stories.

Like Mila, women across war-affected regions, are using their power to speak out against sexual violence. In northern Nigeria, for example, Change Agents Grace and Hadiza have partnered together to create change for the women in their communities through education about rape and violence. In this mission, they have challenged ideas rooted in patriarchal traditions and culture, even speaking out against a powerful community leader.

"There is a Chief in our community who attributed rape cases to girls dressing indecently, and we had to challenge him on that,” says Hadiza. “We went to the Village Head to complain about how his statements condemned victims and fueled support for perpetrators. The Village Head stood strongly in our support and decreed that rape would be prosecuted under the law."

She and Grace, who connected through the Change Agents program in northern Nigeria, are also using their training to advocate for survivors of violence -- following up with the police on cases that might be dismissed and using communication strategies they were taught.

“We encourage women to speak up when they are physically abused by their partners,” says Hadiza, who trained as a Change Agent after completing the Stronger Women, Stronger Nations program. “We tell them that violent behavior can never be excused or justified. We let women know how to report rape cases to the authorities, and we help them get medical and legal support."

Joyce, SWSN Participant
Joyce, SWSN Participant. Photo Credit: WfWI

Joyce, a participant of the SWSN program in Nigeria, also learned of the importance of reporting intimate partner violence and making her voice heard.

“You have to speak out and you have to make people know that this is something that you’re going through,” Joyce says. “From there, you get help from people. But if you keep quiet, there’s no help. People won’t know what you’re going through, so you have to learn to speak out so that help will come to you.”

Many women experiencing domestic violence keep quiet, she says, thinking they are protecting their family’s interests by keeping the secret of abuse. As a result, she says many have died.

“So, I have learned to speak out and learned to know how to tackle issues especially when I have a neighbor or anyone who is going through this challenge, I know what to tell her.”

This International Day of the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, support Women for Women International as we help women survivors overcome the shame and stigma of their trauma, realize their power, and use their knowledge to support other women survivors of sexual violence.

determined wfwi trainer
Conflict-related sexual violence is a growing threat and must be eliminated. Support women survivors who are overcoming unspeakable trauma to build a better future for themselves and their families.