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Change and Hope: WFWI Chief Information Officer Nicole Weaver’s Trip to the DR Congo and Rwanda

Nicole Weaver is the Chief Information Officer at WFWI in Washington, D.C. She visited Rwanda and the DR Congo this February with several other D.C. program directors.

Program participants show off their tie-dye at the Women for Women International training center in Bakuva, Democratic Republic of Congo.

I was nervous crossing the border from Rwanda to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I know many of my colleagues at Women for Women International travel there, but I’ve heard reports of sporadic and random violence in the DRC. As our 4×4 wound its way through the mountainous border region with its tea plantations and volcanoes, I felt a sense of foreboding. 

The border itself is a scruffy-looking parking lot with a few immigration buildings and a lot of people standing around waiting to be processed. There are two gates—the first lets you out of Rwanda and the second lets you into the DRC. The site is a no man’s land, and you could wait 30 seconds or 30 minutes to get through. 

I climbed down from the first car in a torrential downpour and completed departure formalities and walked to DRC immigration, where I was examined, stamped and waved through. Today was a 20-minute day. 

Our destination, Goma, is a town close to the border and one of four sites operated by Women for Women in the DRC. Within a few minutes I was in town, bouncing along a poorly paved road in a traffic pattern that seemed to have few rules except “every man for himself.” The contrast with Rwanda is marked: Where Rwanda is clean and organized, Congo is chaotic and dirty. Compared to the last few miles of sparsely populated rural countryside in Rwanda, Goma struck me as noisy, crowded and stressed. Roads in Rwanda had occasional potholes; roads in Goma are mostly potholes punctuated by a few stretches where the pavement has not yet given up. 

Congo DRC Roads Women for Women International

The roads in the DRC are full of potholes, uneven and often difficult to pass.

My hotel was on the shores of the serene Lake Kivu. Grace Fisiy, our agribusiness specialist, and I decided to take a walk—I still had my lingering concern about security, but Grace assured me it was safe (she is from Cameroon and has traveled all over Africa, so I trust her instinct). 

The dirt in this area is black. Mt. Nyiragongo erupted in 2002, destroying 15% of the buildings and leaving 120,000 people homeless. It also left behind black fertile soil and dust everywhere. The volcanic rock is so plentiful, it is a favored building material, meaning the buildings are also black. As we walked, chatting about Cameroon and family, I gradually realized I had completely relaxed. I did learn a new word on that walk—mzungu, Swahili for white man, which was muttered occasionally as we passed groups of bored security guards! 

The next day, Women for Women’s driver arrived and took us to the office. After some meetings at the office we headed to the vocational skills center, where participants learn soap-making, knitting, cookery and bread-making. There were no classes that day, but about 150 newly enrolled women listened to an orientation, learning what to expect from the program and what Women for Women expects from them. As I stood in the doorway, listening and snapping a couple of pictures, the trainer asked the women if they had any questions. One woman at the far side of the room stood and said, “We want to know who the visitor is,” looking at me. I introduced myself and explained that I was visiting from headquarters and that my job was to find them sponsors (applause) and make sure their letters get to their sponsors (cheers). They said they wished God would take care of me for many years. 

Women for Women DRC Congo Class

Class is in session at Women for Women International in the DRC.

Judith’s Story
Next, we went to the last remaining internally displaced person camp in the Goma area at Mugungu to meet an amazing woman named Judith.   

The camp was established to provide the most basic needs of shelter, water and safety for people fleeing violence within their country, and it is certainly basic. Several hundred huts made from wooden frames covered with tarps littered the rocky field. Children, some naked, played in black puddles of water next to the central water faucets. Other tarp-covered shacks contained pit latrines or housed administrative functions. The camp had an air of suspended despair, as if everyone in it were waiting for the nightmare to end and for a better life to begin. 

Children Goma Refugee Camp DRC

Children play at the Goma refugee camp in the DRC.

I asked how long people usually stay in these camps and the answer was depressing: “A long time; maybe years.” 

We reached Judith’s hut and ducked inside the door flap. She began to tell us her story. 

Judithe DRC Congo Women for Women International

Judith inside her home in the Goma refugee camp.

Judith was just 14 when she lost her parents. She married and had three children but at age 24, war broke out in her home of Masisi and violence hit Judith’s family. “They took us all to the bush and killed my husband,” she said. “I managed to escape and reached Mugungu camp.” Judith then told us how difficult life in the camp had been, how there was little economic support and how, one day, while she was collecting firewood in the bush in order to cook for her children, she was raped and became pregnant. As she spoke, the sorrow and shame clouded her face and she avoided my eyes, head hanging low, voice soft and tremulous. Meanwhile, the beautiful little girl in her arms, the product of that terrible act, slept peacefully. 

Judith was taken care of by UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) during her pregnancy and then heard about Women for Women. “I heard there was a group of women that defended the rights of other women,” she recounts. “When I first went to the class I felt I was not like other women, first I am an orphan, then a widow, then a rape victim. I was so depressed I could not speak. Women for Women taught me how to manage the stress in my life and taught me bread-making. Now I am in a cooperative with 20 women and I am the vice president. We make bread and sell it for profit. Women for Women provided me with the training and the tools to earn money so I can survive. The group helped me to understand I am a woman just like other women.” 

Leaving the hut after hearing Judith’s story, I was once again amazed and inspired by the courage of the women we are privileged to serve. Rape is a shameful act wherever it occurs. Sadly, in the DRC that shame is conferred upon the blameless woman, who is shunned by her husband, family and society. To speak publicly of such a terrible trauma is hard enough in the U.S.—to do so in Congo, you are likely to be judged and rejected. 

Valentine’s Story
Our next stop was visiting Valentine. Her circumstances are similar to Judithe’s in many respects. She was brutally raped in her own home while nine months pregnant. Valentine was in so much pain she passed out and has no recollection of how many times she was raped. Her husband started abusing her, accusing her of enjoying it, and eventually left her with four children and no resources.

Valentine Congo DRC Women for Women International

Valentine outside her home in the Goma refugee camp.

Valentine joined Women for Women and learned business skills she applied to her previous business: trading cement and hardware. She invested her sponsorship funds and built up her business until she was able to buy a small shop and a house. Now she puts all her spare money into her business and shows a fierce determination to building her assets. When I asked her what she would say to her sponsor she said, “I would thank her so much, and I would be proud to show her how I am going up.” Valentine’s spirit and strength shine her story. 

Visiting Women for Women in Bakuva
The next morning, I made my way down to the harbor to get the boat to South Kivu province, where our main country office is located in the town of Bukavu. 

On arrival in Bukavu, I cleared immigration and was collected by the Women for Women driver. We bounced up a steep and muddy road to reach the main road and in a few minutes reached the main Women for Women offices. As in Goma, the office is behind an eight-foot-tall wall topped with nasty-looking razor wire. The outside of this wall, however, is decorated with tiles hand-made by some of or women at the ceramic studio in Panzi, an attractive showcase for their capabilities. 

Women for Women International Bakuva Training Center Tiles

Tiles created by women in the Women for Women International ceramics program in the DRC adorn the wall surrounding the vocational center.

The next day (after an interesting start—the bathroom had no water) was filled with site visits, starting with the vocational training center at Panzi. Although this is just a few miles from Bukavu, the journey takes almost an hour due to the appalling state of the roads. When we reached the center, it was a hive of activity—there were two training sessions in progress, teaching the importance of groups (you must support each other; two people are stronger than one). In addition, the sponsorship team was busy enrolling women while nearly 150 women attended an agricultural vocational training orientation. 

Behind this bustling open-air area we spied a large building housing the ceramic studio. By contrast, the air inside the studio was calm and peaceful, with a few women diligently working the dark gray clay to form vases, cooking braziers or flower pots. The women are taught the basic design of a cooking brazier, but we saw several examples of new designs students come up with on their own—once their creativity is unlocked, there are many good ideas.

Ceramics Women for Women International DRC Congo

Women at the ceramics studio make beautiful products and add their own touches to their pieces.

Another very successful product is the clay tiles I had earlier seen adorning the wall surrounding the main office. The trainer explained that demand for these tiles outstripped their ability to make them, and that he was looking into ways that the production could be increased. 

Panzi Hospital
As we strolled back through the compound, I was asked me if I would like to see the famous Panzi Hospital, and institution that has helped rape victims for years. 

I said I would love to, and a short drive later we arrived at the gates. As soon as we entered the hospital grounds, the tranquility was overwhelming. Gardens overflowing with flowers were surrounded by low buildings and a cool, shaded walkway. Patients waited to be seen, and white-coated staff members busied themselves with the care of their charges. 

We were fortunate that Wednesday is when Dr. Denis Mukwege does not see patients, but receives visitors. After waiting a short time I had the opportunity to greet Dr. Mukwege and shake his hand—a great honor for me!

The last stop of the day was the vocational training center at Bukavu, where we were able to see women in the process of making the bright tie-dye fabrics I had seen brought back to the states by my colleagues, and all kinds of soap for both bathing and washing clothes. Julienne, a former participant and now a trainer, walked me through the fascinating process of the soap-making and proudly displayed the finished product. Of course I had to buy some.

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Women for Women International: DRC

WfWI-DRC has the largest program in the Women for Women International network, serving over 7,000 women this year. Looking at a map of the country at large, the areas in which we work seem rather close in vicinity, especially relative to the size of the country (nearly the same landmass as Western Europe). However, looking at the prominently placed map of DRC in the Bukavu headquarters, it is clear that the communities WfWI-DRC serve are nowhere near each other; from North to South, Goma, Bukavu, Baraka, and Uvira are hours away from each other. It is a 13 hour drive, north to south. Unfortunately for me, it means that my time in the country will be primarily limited to Bukavu. Luckily for me, the training staff from all the sub-offices are here for the Training of Trainers (ToT).

The ToT’s purpose is to give an in-depth orientation to the newly deepened Women’s World Manual Curriculum, help the Renewing Women’s Life Skills trainers improve their facilitation skills, and most importantly help them solve problems so they can more effectively serve the women participants. I already knew that the DRC training crew have significant challenges, but I also know that they are uniquely placed to have a great impact on the women we serve. Having worked on the curriculum revision for two years as WfWI Program Coordinator in DC, I am very excited and happy to be here.

This is also a unique opportunity for the trainers; such great distances mean that they have little opportunity to interact, share experiences, and focus exclusively on their training techniques. They seem especially excited that Nina and I are here to focus on their important work. On the first day of training, it seems quite a lot like the first day of “school”; the ReneWLS trainers stick with the people they know. The Bukavu group sits together, the Goma group sits together, and the Baraka/Uvira group sit together. I know they are excited, but they also seem nervous. This is not surprising; having worked on the revised curriculum for a long time myself, I know that the new manual is more than double the size of the original, which makes it imposing before you even open the book. But, as lead training consultant Nina Nayar says as she introduces the curriculum, we have complete confidence in the training staff. We know they can master the new material. All that is really new is the methodology, and I am more than confident that the trainers can learn from each other and teach Nina and I things as well.

Nina introduces herself, and then gives me the floor. I tell the trainers about my work with WfWI, and I also tell them that I am a first generation American whose parents are from Nigeria and Ghana. This is my first trip to Africa since I was a child. This brings lots of smiles and applause to the room.

Then the 37 trainers, plus office and sub-office staff introduce themselves. The youngest trainer is 22 – the oldest trainers playfully decline to give their age. The trainers are young, mature, married, widowed, divorced, single, and have training in many different fields. There are trained teachers, nurses, lawyers, and agronomists in the training staff. Also present is Honorata, the prime example of WfWI successes, is present among the Baraka group of trainers. As we finish introducing ourselves and begin dividing up sessions and exercises to practice, I am certain that WfWI-DRC has the best trainers to be had in the country. I am excited to see what they make of the new material.

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My Journey Back to the DRC by Judithe Registre

It is strange being back in Eastern DRC. Indeed, it has been well over a year since I last visited our program sites in Bukavu and Goma. Being back feels strange—how little things have changed and yet how much things have changed. What is it that has changed and what has not? An element that has not changed appreciably is represented by the internally displaced camps located outside of Goma. The IDP and refugee camps are not easy places to visit. In fact, I am not feeling just one emotion; rather, I am twisted. I visited these IDP camps in 2007, which was the last time I was in Congo. As I see the people in the camps struggling to achieve the dignified life that these camps cannot provide, I am left with a bleeding heart. Why is it that we must have such state of pain and suffering, when it can be so easily prevented? It is hard for me to witness these conditions knowing that something can certainly be done—we live in a world that has the potential to end these types of injustice and atrocities.

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What has changed are some of the women I met the last time I was here. Many of them were new in the program. A few of these women have become trainers of other women in the program. Thus, here I am with women who are striving for change in order to improve the lives of their families and ensure the next generation of Congolese escapes the fate that is outlined by the unthinkable sociopolitical reality that has marked the underdevelopment of Congo from inception to date. I am completely amazed at the development that is taking place among the women we served; the changes, how they are making hope a tangible reality.

As I stand somewhere between optimism and despair, I am reminded constantly that I am the same as the women in the program; I am them, they are me. As I encounter their humanity, I see mine as well as the humanity that exists globally. My heart is strong—but not strong enough in the midst of such suffering. My heart bleeds and it cries as I hear the retelling of the story about a young woman who was raped by 17 men. The total destruction of her internal organs has rendered her genderless.

I am enraged by the lack of acknowledgement for the unnecessary suffering that fails to recognize the humanity in the face of this young woman as well as in the faces of the women I meet and see, or the elderly and the children I encounter in these camps. While my heart cries out as I experience the inhumane conditions with which these people are faced as they struggle to survive and live a rewarding life, my tears are wiped away by the hope I see in the faces of the women when they walk into the Women for Women training center. As well, my trust in humanity is renewed—as it has been countless times when I meet the women we served—seeing the confidence in their movements as they walk into the compound and watching how lively they become at the prospect of gaining skills and acquiring new knowledge. How engaging there are; how eager they are eager to share their stories with each other and to share their knowledge with others. They are eager to give advice to one another about the need to be strong and remain active in these trying times.

While there is a tremendous amount of suffering and injustice occurring in this corner of the world, there is still astonishing hope to be found in Eastern Congo. This is not the kind of hope that lies dormant; rather, it is the type that is active. It is not the kind of hope that prompts people to ask for pity or charity; instead, it is the kind that prompts them to seek skills and training. Clearly, this is not the kind of hope that compels people to ask for handouts. Quite differently, it is the kind of hope that prompts them to ask—always courteously—for a hand up. What a delight it is to see this tangible hope in a place where few people can see the light.  Being in the Congo again has been deeply painful for me as my heart is too sensitive to bear witness to injustice of any kind. Still, my heart delights as I realize how we as an institution continue to make hope a reality for so many deserving people. This is the reality that I see, smell, touch, and feel. I can see it with each smile on the faces of women and children as they participate in our training.  Simply to be able to witness this expression is a reward in itself. It is indeed a privilege and a gift to see the lives that are being transformed.

I am reminded that there is always hope even in the midst of dire uncertainty, and the women with whom we work, in places like the DRC, have reminded me of this many times. With that reminder, I am once again moved by the way these women face the uncertain situation in their country. They face it with exhilarating clarity and the strong conviction that they can make a difference within their sphere of influence at the grassroots level—and they often do. They are successful in this because they believe they can indeed make a difference. Thankfully, we at Women for Women International help them achieve those beliefs and those outcomes.

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Rwanda/DRC Trip – by Sara Sykes

In the Women for Women International headquarters office in Washington DC, I sit in a small office everyday.

I type on my computer.

I answer the phone.

I rush down the hall, eager to finish a task, brief someone, put out a fire. Sometimes, I go outside, walk to Starbucks, stretch my legs.

I discuss our programs. I talk about the women we help. I say things like, “By the end of our program, our women can bring their vocation to market” or “During our program, our women meet in small groups and learn about human rights.”

I talk about our sponsorship program. I say, “For just $27 a month, you can help improve the life of a woman survivor of war” or “For just $27 a month, you can have a sister across the world.”

I say these things, I believe in what we do.

Then, I had the opportunity to travel to Rwanda and DRC with our founder and CEO, Zainab Salbi.

I am not just a believer anymore. I am so much more than that. Being able to witness, firsthand, the impact of our programs on women, their families, and their communities amounts to more than I can ever sum up into a catchphrase, a passing conversation, a blog on a website. Maybe Chris, a South African who traveled with us to both Rwanda and DRC, had something when he said, “I have traveled with many journalists, and they are always looking for the worst. Women for Women showed me the best.”

It is so easy to find the worst around us. Don’t our friends and loved ones say that it’s easier to harp on the bad things, more difficult to pick out the good things? It is so easy to go to a place like Rwanda, find a genocide victim, despairing over her slain children, her murdered husband, the machete marks on her back. It is so easy to go to DRC, find women used as weapons of war, living in IDP camps, seven starving children spilling out of a tattered tent no bigger than a small car, their starving bellies swelling out of their ripped clothes.

But when you look, when you really look, you will find the best.

You will find our women.

When you really look, you will see our women in Rwanda. Genocide survivors working on a pineapple cooperative with their sisters, singing as they harvest their crops. Smiling at each other, sharing and learning from one another, the babies on their backs dreaming what babies dream. You will see a woman using her sponsorship funds to send her children to school, buy a cow, equip her home with electricity. You will see our CIFI graduates building a kitchen garden together. You will hear a woman say how Women for Women helped her to “not despise herself.”

When you really look, you will see our women in Congo. Pens pressed to crisp new blue notebooks. The letter a repeated across the page, a look of determination, white chalk on a blackboard. You will see women sharing their stories. Allowing their voices to be heard above the violence that’s been committed against them, an outlet of healing. You will see women who are no longer isolated victims on their own islands of despair, but banned together, rising above the rubble and rampage. You will see women cherishing their sponsorship letters, keeping them under their heads at night, bragging about the photo they received from their sister. You will see heart, and soul, and hope. You will hear a woman say, “My dream is my children going to school.”

Returning to my small office in D.C., I go back to my computer, the phone, rushing down the hall, the occasional trip outside.

But everything has changed.

The world looks brighter, throbbing with a new heartbeat around my own. Now I can say it all the best way I know how. I can reach in, see our women dancing, singing, gathering, sharing, learning, healing and hoping. I can pull it right out and share it with you, the only way I know how–the best.

I learned it from our women.

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Congo – IDP Camps – by Sara Sykes

IDP Camp

After experiencing the Women’s Rights Training and listening to their stories and shared learning, our DRC Country Director, Christine Karumba, took us to the one of the five IDP camps where these women are all living, some for three years now. Trying to wrap my head around these women’s reality—being forced from your own home, displaced in your own country, with no way of knowing when and if you can return—made my eyes tear in angry confusion. I feel as if I experienced the camp in short films across my eyes, each one it’s own, yet connected to the others. For this reason, I cannot write a narrative, only the short reels that could not and will not ever do these women justice. My only hope is to share this horrific yet beautiful moment in my life that forever will be burned into the flesh of my heart.

A four year old girl carrying a stack of wood, three times as long and heavy as she, on her head. She has on a faded Big Bird shirt on.

The ground is a chaotic wreck of jagged volcanic rocks piled at unstable angles and we must go slowly, carefully, and anxiously across the camp. More than once I stumble, scrape my foot or lose my balance.

Children with clothes so dirty you cannot tell what their original colors or designs were, some with their clothes hanging off them by a thread, naked underneath to expose their swollen bellies. They are curious and follow us through camp, we gather more as we moved along, giggling and smiling.

A young boy about 2 years old with a ball made of rags. I kick it to him.

Rows of shelters, tightly packed, harsh rocks piled around their perimeters to keep them in place, tattered plastic sheets cover their frames, some have wooden panels, tin, cardboard; rags hang in the entrances, a makeshift door. They no more than 8-10 feet long, 3 or 4 feet wide. I cannot stand up in them.

We are greeted by the camp manager. He explains there are 7,000 women in this camp, 5,000 children, and 2,000 men. I wilt to think about the other 6,000 women.

A market has materialized in the center of the camp. Potatoes are stacked high on concrete platform where a woman gets ready to wash them. Other women sit in small groups, selling grilled cord, reused pain cans full of orange cooking oil; a smoking fire, a boy with no pants. The smell of smoke, something rotting, human waste, fills my nose. I think about vomiting.

The sounds are deafening: babies are screaming, wailing and crying; people are talking hurriedly; women wash dishes and clothes at a wash states; little boys drink out of water spickets; mud sticks to the bottom of my shoes. A young girl, face down on a bed of jagged rocks, wails, her arms limp at her sides; no energy to move. I give her a banana. She immediately stops. She is starving.

I notice no men, just young boys and toddlers.

Long lines at the humanitarian aid tent. Christine explains that goal is to provide a Women for Women International tent inside the camp, as soon as possible.

I see our women, gathering with their notebooks clutched to their chests from the Literacy Training class. They have made the long walk and want us to see their homes. I watch how they never release their notebooks, even when they are talking to each other. They bow their heads with a shy grin when I smile at them and say, “Jambo” (Good morning).

A woman’s home, her tent, her seven children spilling out, their bodies entangled. Her t-shirt reads in French, “I want kisses.” The irony is crushing.

We are all in a small alley, about 5 feet across, separating one row of tents from another. There is hardly any space between them. A young boy across the alley washes a bowl in soapy water, staring at us, two babies peak out of the tent he’s in front of. I feel squeezed in. Our women surround us, excited and so happy we have come. Children are under our feet, their hungry eyes breaking my heart into a million pieces. I wish I had more bananas. I think of Judithe’s home in Rwanda.

A stunning young girl is in front of me. Her t-shirt is powdered blue. It reads, “Girls Rule With Love.”

One of our women explains she doesn’t know when she can go back to her home. Her dreams are to build a house, but she is scared for her life. She has been at this camp for three years, but she has hope.

Christine translates a large sign for us, posted near the center of camp. It has pictures of men with guns, in military uniforms, arresting other men with no shirts on. There are women in the background raising their arms and yelling. It says that rape against women will not be tolerated in the camp and will be punished. I think about this sign anywhere else.

I think of the other 6,000 women in this camp, their 5,000 children.

I think of the four other IDP camps in Goma.

I think how, in the women’s rights training class, the women said they keep their letters under their heads at night.

I think how our women learned A, I, and O. I think how they will clutch their notebooks.

I think I am hollow.

This is the kind of home that women, children and their famillies live in in the IDP Camps

This is the kind of home that women, children and their famillies live in in the IDP Camps

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Women in Goma Program Return to Classes

January 22, 2009, Goma – In speaking with staff in our offices in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) this morning, we have learned that nearly all of the women in our program in Goma have been able to return to classes. While women are still concerned for their safety, the situation has improved at our location in Goma to an extent that women and their families are able to make the trip to class.

Sponsorship funds for these women are more important than ever as they struggle to provide for their families in what is still an unstable environment. The sponsors of women not yet able to return to the program will be contacted individually so that we may together determine how best to support the women at this time.

Our program offices in all of our other locations in the DRC where we serve the majority of women in our DR Congo program remain unaffected by the continued violence.

Thank you to our supporters for their heartfelt concern for the women and if you sponsor a woman in the DRC, please do take a moment to send her a letter letting her know you are glad she is safe, that you hope she is able to complete the program so she may sustain an income and affect change in her community and that there are men and women around the world concerned for her.

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Paralyzed by Fear – Women Hope for the Violence to End. News from Women In Goma, Congo.

November 19, 2008, Goma – “I am afraid of the fighting reaching my area. Like all women, I am afraid of being raped,” says Jeanette Yamwerenye, one of the women, who has made it to the Women for Women training in Goma on this November morning. At the age of 28 she has spent half her life surrounded by conflict, poverty, hunger, disease, and uncertainty. Twice Jeanette had to pack her few belongings and run from her home. The last time she was heavily pregnant and gave birth while fleeing the fighting.

 

Like all women in our program Jeanette is paralyzed with fear of violence and concern over displaced family members. “My parents in law are very old and we don’t know where they are.” From the people who have fled the area north of Goma, where violent clashes have displaced more than 250,000 people, she hears that women and children are being killed.

 

The women in the classroom are poor and afraid. They don’t want to lose the small gains they have made toward a stable life over the last year. Completing the Women for Women International program is a way to a self-sustaining life that might enable them to support their families with the skills they have learnt.

 

Marie Jeanne Kabuo is 25 and looks after three children. Last year she was abducted while working on her fields by armed men. They tried to rape her but she managed to escape. Jeanne came to Goma and joined the Women for Women program.

 

“If the fighting reaches us, people will get killed, women and girls will be raped,” she says. “I am praying because I know that there will be so many orphans, widows, and so many people, who had their property looted.”

 

Every woman in the room has a story of suffering, fear, and loss.  Antoinette Kabuo has seven children. When she fled her home three years ago she was beaten up, her husband was kidnapped, and her property stolen. Marie Jeanne Kavira saw her younger sister being raped in public, Tabu Tariane lost her uncle and cousin in the recent fighting, and Eizabeth Baseme lost a child because she could not find proper treatment.

 

They all want to finish their training with Women for Women and improve their lives and provide their children with a better future.

 

Elizabeth sums it up: “We are restless and afraid to become a displaced. We are always at risk of inhuman treatment.”

 

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It Takes Men To Stop Rape in Congo – Christine Karumba, Country Director of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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.

 

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Fear of Rape and Violence Rising – Women for Women Reaches Out To Vulnerable Women in Congo

Washington, DC, November 12, 2008 – Amidst widespread violence and massive human suffering Women for Women International is preparing to respond to the needs of thousands of women who are threatened by the fighting and are in urgent need of assistance.

“We will reach out to more women including those who now live in displacement camps in and around Goma and hope to offer sponsorships to the most vulnerable among them,” says Karen Sherman, Executive Director of Global Programs with Women for Women International. “Since most women are not able to come to us, we will go to them and offer assistance through financial aid and on-site training.”

Christine Karumba, the DR Congo Country Director

Christine Karumba, the DR Congo Country Director


The direct assistance will help them to pay for food, medicine, and other lifesaving needs. Since the latest outbreak of violence more than 250,000 people have been forced to leave their homes over the last few weeks alone, bringing the total number of displaced to more than 1.2 million.


The worst fighting is occurring close to the provincial capital city of Goma, where Women for Women is training and assisting almost 1,000 women. The UN is reporting that retreating fighters have gone on a rape and looting rampage just 60 miles north of Goma. In another incident on Tuesday night 75,000 people fled their homes following a gun battle in Kibati, just six miles from the city.


“More than half of our women are missing classes in our training program in Goma,” says Christine Karumba via phone from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Due to the volatile situation they are unable to reach our training facilities.”


“We worry that many of our women have been displaced and lost all their belongings – or, even worse, have once again become victims of violence. We will find them as soon as the situation allows us to go to their homes and help them to reintegrate into the program.” says Karumba.


Over the past decade, a brutal conflict has devastated much of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), leaving the country without a functioning infrastructure and most families in a state of crisis. More than five million people have died as a result of the violent conflict, most through disease and malnutrition and. Women are often directly targeted by combatants using rape and other forms of sexual violence as a weapon of war.


 

Women for Women International in DR Congo is currently assisting almost 7,000 women through financial support and a one year program that includes rights awareness, health education, and skills training. The organization works with communities in Bukavu, Goma, Fizi and Baraka in the heavily affected South and North Kivu provinces in Eastern Congo.

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Ashley Judd’s Journal from the Congo Day 1

Ashley Judd

You Go Global, Girl! Travels in Rwanda and Eastern Congo

By, Ashley Judd

Years ago there was an Oprah magazine in a seat back pocket on a flight and I flipped through it. Or maybe I bought it, the issue with Bono on the cover. Anyhow, there was a tear out card describing Women for Women International. I was so intrigued and I challenged my Feathered Piper yoga sisters each to sponsor a woman in a war torn country. This is Zainab Salbi’s program, founded in reaction to the rape camps during the war in Bosnia, and based on her own experiences growing up under a dictator (Saddam Hussein). Since then, I have given sponsorships to other special women in my life. Letters from my different sisters are always a delight, and I appreciate how Women for Women International includes a snapshot. Mary Ogeke in Nigeria, gathering kindling for boiling water, is my favorite. She wrote me a delightful twist an old favorite expression – she wished me “more grease for your elbow.” My husband and I are so charmed by her he often encourages me to tell our friends about Mary and I now whisper in his ear before the green flag of his races, “I wish you more grease for your elbow!!”

Quite wonderfully, a group of my sisters were graduating from a Rwanda program during my stay! I missed meeting them due to my canceled flight, but it was fantastic to meet Zainab in Rwanda and plan my visit to Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to see her program there, where gender based violence is a daily occurrence.

I am traveling to the DRC to visit the PSI and Women for Women International. These PSI clinics specialize in family planning, maternal and child health, and the treatment and prevention of malaria. (We also do safe water and HIV prevention in this area of the DRC). I also hope to visit with women who are rape victims and have graduated from Women for Women International’s program. Rape is an epidemic here. It is an emergency. It is everywhere, on a massive scale. It is not altogether unreported in the western media, but it is grossly underreported. An ancient and common tool of warfare, this area’s female population has been hostage to gender based violence for decades.

What a shocking difference a few feet makes. On the Rwandan side of the crossing, the roads are tidy, neat, maintained. The earth is red and the wind blowing through the trees, the lapping of the shores of Lake Kivu, is serene. There is a sense of orderliness and even within the clear, abject poverty; I feel the purposeful attempt at self improvement, through agriculture and the tiny, colorful flower gardens.

Passing into the DRC…Oh my God.

Ashley Judd

After passing a few ramshackle villas at the border, Goma opens up as a relentless, vast dusty slum. There is rubble, garbage, filth, people covered in muck and grime, buildings that are nothing more than lean-to shanties. The earth is grey, drab, choking with dust, visibility limited by dust – the result of lava flow from a nearby volcano.

After spending a heartbreaking and inspiring day with the staff of PSI, I traveled to visit the Women for Women International office.

Women for Women International provides literacy, hygiene, nutritional, educational, and job skills. An NGO with programs in 8 conflict and post conflict countries, they pair, for $324 a year, a woman who can afford it with a woman who cannot. Less than a dollar a day and the money does so much!

In the midst of this ragged and doomed place is a walled courtyard filled with grass that is actually green, a garden that is actually tended, a building that is clean and proud. There were enough chairs for 20 (!) people to sit, and some tidy (if out of place looking, I always chuckle, wondering where the stuff come from) furniture.

I was greeted with joyous clapping, singing, and ululating, the great African vocalization. I ran to the throng and threw myself at them, dancing and exclaiming my hello in their native style. After some time discovering each other in this way, I was introduced as someone who sponsors in Women for Women International and who was there to hear their stories and to take their stories to America.

We sat for hours, each woman taking her turn to stand before her sisters and me, sharing her life story. They were each so incredibly beautiful! The eyes, the cheekbones, the lips! They wore traditional, colorful dress and I so want to learn to wrap a turban like that! They were all reached by a Women for Women International recruiter about the same time and have been in the program one year.

This is what those 4 ½ hours sounded like to me:

I am an orphan My husband was killed My 3 sons were killed I could not read I could not write I could not count I lived like an animal I have 13 children I have 10 children I am a widow I am a refugee I am an internally displaced person I fled with nothing, not even a cup I did not know how to feed myself I was half mad I was crazy I was a cadaver I was a corpse People in the street were afraid of me I begged I scavenged in the dump I treated my children like animals My husband went to other women My husband’s people pushed my from our home when he died I was run off the land I was cheated because I did not know how to sign my name My children died I have taken in orphans I knew nothing I was filthy I smelled bad I came to this area to escape violence I carried loads with my body to earn money for food I walked everywhere with my hoe to see if people needed my services if they did not I starved I had no where to go I was dead I had no idea how not to have more children I was in a constant panic I lived in terror I could not cope with stress I abused everyone around I was in a rage The psychological trauma was so great I was abandoned I neglected myself

And then, the transfiguration:

I am the happiest woman in the world – I am so blessed – I know my rights – Women have rights - I learned to read - I learned to write - I can assess the value of my small goods to ask a fair price for them – I received a small loan to buy fabric - I sew now to earn a decent living – I can calculate my profit so I can manage my finances - I save a bit and I use my capital to expand my business – I learned about nutrition – I know how to eat -Vegetables are important - I know where to get them - Look at me I am clean! - I use soap - I use lotion - My children eat 3 meals a day - My husband and I are partners now I have rights in the household – I have a voice – I keep my pamphlet which describes my rights in my pocket, it is with me at all times - I was able to save enough to buy a small plot of land – I have my own home – I built my home – I am saving for my home – I was able to get back two plots of my dead husband’s land and I sold them for a profit – My soul opened up – A new woman was born inside of me – I use the money Women for Women International gave me to pay the fees for my daughter to go to school - In my culture no girl ever went to school but mine do now - The woman who recruited me would not recognize me today – I thank God - I space my births by at least 3 years – I am at peace – I am empowered – I live a respectable life – I have dignity – I have worth – I harassed all the governors so much, they were sick of seeing me, they would not give me back my land, but eventually they did – I joined another women’s rights group and they elected me their leader

Their stories are unbelievable, each woman a Congolese Lazarus, nothing short of an absolute and total miracle. As we listened, the group made clucking and groaning noises of recognition, and would burst into applause at a particularly heightened expression of empowerment. When the entire group finished, we talked in more detail about sexual exploitation, rape, HIV, malaria, and unsafe water. Each woman had personally had malaria, yet strangely, not a single one slept under a net last night. Half had babies die from it. Most “knew” (perhaps they spoke of themselves) someone who had been raped. A few knew her HIV status, and again, strangely, only one was using modern birth control.


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