In Congo, Women Face Impossible Choice: Risk Rape, or Go Hungry

Ed note. This is a special guest post from Marcy Hersh of Refugees International.

Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo – What is something that you do no less than ten times every day? Check email? Send a text message? No less than ten times a day, Colette* listens to the story of a woman who has just been raped.

Colette runs a small counseling center at a camp for internally displaced people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The camp is home to about 50,000 individuals and is located just outside the provincial capital of North Kivu and adjacent to Virunga National Park. While some humanitarian groups distribute food to the camp, those distributions are not enough to feed a family, and what little is provided  must be cooked over a fire. This makes firewood an essential commodity, both for food preparation and to sell in the marketplace for a small profit, and it is women’s customary role to collect it.

Women regularly leave the relative safety of the camp and go into Virunga National Park to look for food and firewood. There, women are terrifyingly easy targets of the various armed groups who regularly patrol the forest, and every day no less than ten women are raped. Indeed, there are a number of other camps in the area, and those women all suffer the same fate when they go out to collect firewood.

Tragically, sexual violence has become an accepted part of daily life eastern Congo. Women know the dangers they face in entering the park – yet, for their own survival, and that of their families, they have no choice but go on these dangerous journeys and suffer the consequences.

The international community is well aware of the dangers these women face and has sought solutions to protect them. Most of those solutions have fallen short. For example, it has been suggested that police patrol the park more frequently, but the Congolese National Police are too fearful of the armed groups to patrol there. Numerous projects have provided firewood and fuel-efficient stoves for women in the camp, which has been somewhat successful. But unfortunately, funding for such projects does not last long enough to make them a sustainable solution.

Though there seems to be no easy fix, the women of this camp are extremely lucky to at least have Colette. For nearly two months now, Colette has run a small counseling center supported by a local NGO. When women come to the center, they are welcomed into a modest space where Colette listens as they recount their experience of rape. If they need and want medical attention, Colette accompanies the survivor to a camp clinic where emergency services are provided free of charge. To overcome the stigma and discrimination that rape survivors face, Colette also provides family mediation services to help husbands accept their wives after these terrible incidents.

When my Refugees International colleague and I visited Colette, she was warm, sensitive, and knew all too well what her clients have experienced. She is a survivor herself. Her eyes welled up with tears as she recalled her own experience of victimization and her fears about returning home to her husband after being raped. After that experience, she worked hard to become the inspiring counselor that she is today.

Counselors like Colette provide lifesaving services in eastern Congo: ensuring that women receive emergency medical treatment and psychological support, and enabling them to recover and heal. Still, the women of this region need a long-term solution that keeps them safe and prevents these atrocities from occurring. No one should have to listen to these terrible stories ten times a day – much less experience them firsthand.

Marcy Hersh is a senior advocate at Refugees International, a non-profit organization that advocates to end displacement and statelessness crises worldwide and receives no government or UN funding. 

*Last name withheld