“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world;
indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
Over 50 women gathered at the “No Stigma” workshop held in Kindu, Democratic Republic of the Congo on July 17-20, 2017. The event was sparked by the Congo Women Arise initiative that is combating stigma against survivors of rape in East Congo, and was sponsored by Harper Hill Global, the WiseHeart Foundation, and the East Congo United Methodist Church.
Initially planned as a workshop for leaders of Congo Women Arise, survivors of rape heard about the workshop and came – joining the group by sitting in the back of the room. When I greeted each participant personally, it was evident who they were. Unlike others in the room who welcomed me with bright smiles and eyes, these women did not raise their heads but stared at the floor instead. I knelt down to look them in the eye, and welcome them.
Gertrude Bwanahali Baisicha works with the Maniema Province on gender issues. She provided background: “During the war, men and boys stayed home to prevent being killed, or captured as soldiers. As families remained indoors for safety, women eventually left to go look for food, coming face to face with attackers.” When women returned home battered and broken, they were blamed for what happened and cast out from society. To some in the room, this was eye-opening; to others, it was their story.
On the fourth day of the workshop, three survivors came forward to speak openly.
Georgette, Rosalie and Bibiche each shared unique and heartbreaking stories. Georgette had been a midwife, but began staying away from others after she was gang raped by militia. Rosalie was attacked with her 15-year old daughter sixteen years ago. Her daughter was taken, and to this day she doesn’t know if she survived. When Rosalie returned home after the rape, her husband threw her out of their home. Bibiche is 18, and was brutally raped by four men when she was 15. Her father rejected her, and she has not been able to attend school since. The reactions were visceral: many in the group did not know their stories. Some wept. Signs of love and acceptance were given.
The affirmation they received in that moment will continue to be embodied in Congo Women Arise which seeks to provide physical, psychological and spiritual care to survivors through a women’s center in Kindu. In addition, Harper Hill Global is working with the East Congo United Methodist Church on a regional communications campaign to combat stigma that includes television and radio broadcasts, social media and mobile communications. This communications campaign can affect attitudes towards survivors in other parts of the country where programs are lacking. We hope to replicate the “No Stigma” workshop in other parts of the East Congo region to mobilize leaders and amplify survivors’ voices.
When women are safe, families and communities thrive. I give thanks to Bishop Gabriel Unda for giving priority to this program in his episcopal area, and for the women in leadership who continue to live out the lessons from the workshop each day. They are certainly a “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.” I believe they will change the world.
*Photos courtesy of Melissa Wheatley.