Supporting survivors of sexual violence

11 August, 2017
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More than 1 million women and girls have been raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during the past 20 years of violent conflict, according to estimates by UN Women. Beyond physical pain, they suffer emotional trauma and the fear of rejection. But with support from the OCHA-managed DRC Humanitarian Fund (DHF), the non-governmental organization Hope in Action is helping survivors of sexual violence in eastern DRC to recover and thrive.

In 2015, Hope in Action received US$600,000 from the DHF to build/rehabilitate four community-counselling centres in DRC’s North Kivu Province (in Masisi and Walikale territories). Survivors of sexual violence meet compassionate listeners at the centres and find help in their uphill battle to recover. Women are also offered free medical assistance through local health centres where they can receive post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) kits, which, if taken within 72 hours of an assault, reduce the risk of HIV transmission.

Lending an ear

Anne and Colette were trained as counsellors for a Hope in Action Maison d'Ecoute (Listening House). They offer women a safe place to tell their stories, which is a simple but crucial part of recovery.

Anne and Colette feel they needed “to be involved in the fight to stop sexual violence within [their] community”, but they are worried that some survivors do not seek assistance out of fear of stigmatization and rejection by their husbands.

“In some cases, we hear of a sexual assault and visit the survivor if the security situation allows it. Then we do the utmost to convince her to come with us to seek medical assistance at the health centre,” explained Colette.

A helping hand

In April 2016, Hope in Action also began supporting income-generating activities to help survivors get back on their feet. By providing access to farmland and agricultural inputs or financial assistance to start small businesses, 120 women were again able to provide for themselves and their families.

One of those women is 63-year-old Nana.* “I received financial assistance from Hope in Action to help me start selling charcoal at the local market,” she said. “Now, thanks to the profit I make, I eat three meals per day and can meet my basic needs, as well as those of my family.”

Renée,* 39, said: “Thanks to this activity, I own and cultivate my own field and sell vegetables at the local market. Now, I can feed myself and my children and send them to school.”

Involving men

The Hope in Action project also supports community outreach and training activities to help break stereotypes, inform people about gender and sexual violence, and help communities heal. The active involvement of men has been central to these activities.

Le Grand and Jackson, both 30 years old, explained that the DHF-funded training changed their perception of their roles as husbands and fathers. “The training really contributed to opening our minds and understanding the importance and benefits of considering ourselves as part of a family that functions best as a team rather than as a dictatorship,” explained Le Grand.

“I noticed a positive change in my husband’s behavior towards me. Before the training, he never used to ask for my [sexual] consent,” added 25-year-old Adeline.

Medical attention and more

Espérance, the Head Nurse at the health centre in Loashi village, explained that with DHF funding, Hope in Action was able to provide the centre with critical antiretroviral medicine, PEP kits, maternity and baby kits, $50 per month for operational costs and a mill for survivors to process their crops. Profits from the mill are distributed equally among the survivors, and they each receive 50,000 Congolese Francs ($30) per month.

The Hope in Action project will soon end, but Anthony Musafiri, Coordinator for Hope in Action in North Kivu, noted that its positive effects would be long lasting.

“These DHF-funded activities have strengthened the resilience of beneficiaries,” he said. “Women who were long marginalized and survivors of sexual violence are smiling again because of their extraordinary courage and a response that was adapted for sound social cohesion.”

He added: “We are also delighted to note a real change in men’s attitudes. An increasing number of men no longer consider the role of women as limited to work in the house and in the fields. They now see women as true partners who can play the same role as men within their community.”

Since 2011, the DHF has allocated just over $1 million to Hope in Action to support more than 90,000 people.

The DHF allows donors to pool their contributions into a single, unearmarked fund to support the highest-priority humanitarian projects in DRC. So far this year, the fund has received a total of $15 million from Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg and Sweden.

*Not her real name