Photo by Edward Echwalu.

I am in Brussels where two days ago Congolese community had clashes with Police when they went out to demonstrate agains the president Joseph Kabila’s ‘re-election’ which has so far been rejected by international election observers and leading opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi.

The Carter Center said “we find the irregularities are significant enough to undermine the credibility of the election results.”

Again the contention is on the tallying process. Earlier the opposition had warned that the Electoral body had chosen to announce first results from Kabila’s strongholds in Katanga, a move seen by many as way to psychologically prepare the population if Kabila is finally announced as a winner. But Once again we have a Cote d’Iviore situation, both men have announced themselves as winners of the election. There are reports of government moving troops into Kinshasa and rounding up youth linked to the opposition. The situation is unpredictable and no one seems to know how this stalemate will be solved. And as tensions flare I am reminded of women of DRC, eastern DRC in particular who have endured all sorts of inhumane acts by soldiers and militias. On this day they see the little hope of having a government that can bring peace wane.

And I bring a story of Ester Munyerenkana a health worker at Panzi. I have held onto this story for quite a while. Her and other health workers daily have to deal with the end result of the broken political system and violence in Congo .

They all hope they can see a function government that can protect it’s citizens from this violence but as the two figures clash, like we say when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. I hope Congo is not left to descend into further chaos.

Ester’s Story 

Ester Munyerenkana could be rightly called one of the world’s most hard working health workers. A mother of four, together with many other women hustles daily to bring back life to sexually violated women at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The hospital, which offers medical and pyscho-social care to women from as far as Katanga region, receives at least 10 women a day after brutal sexual violations has been meted on them in the various conflicts that have plunged Eastern DRC since the ousting President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.

In 2009, more than 5,000 women were raped in South Kivu alone according to the UN figures.  The majority of the rapes are committed by soldiers or armed rebels but recent studies have showed an increased in raped committed by civilians.

Oxfam and Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) in April 2010 carried out as study from interviews of 4,311 female survivors of rape treated at the Survivors of Sexual Violence department at Panzi Hospital and fund an increase in number of civilian rapes among the patients treated. The number of reported civilian rapes among patients admitted to the SSV-project in 2008 was 11 per cent and in 2009 it increased to 15 per cent. From July 2009 to June 2010 the figure had further increased to 18 per cent.

This is the department where Ester works. She explains her bravery amidst the daily distress to being raised by a single mother. Ester’s father passed away just when she had started nursery school and her eldest sibling was just 12 years old. She says her mother pushed to look out for community service.  “It was the upbringing in a Christian family where love was central. My mother emphasized passion to others as she struggled to take us through school,.”

Ester got her Midwifery in 1976 in Bukavu DRC and after which worked at different centres. Now at Panzi Hospital, she is better known as Cherie Mama for her welcoming smile.

“Since the war began in the late 1990s I have been working with women who are in the most painful situations, physically and psychologically,” explains Ester, “but in 2004 I decided to take up a social work course.

She says it was because of her desire to be more than a midwife. After her course, Ester asked the hospital management to be transferred to the Survivors of Sexual Violence (SSV) department.

“I wanted to work with the worst cases, I was not satisfied just doing only deliveries. I thought it is best to go to those with no happiness and I will bring happiness to them,” she said.

At the time Panzi Hospital would get more than 400 rape victims per months some of the survivors of gang rapes come from as far as 100-600 miles from the hospital.

“Most victims of rape when they arrived at Panzi hospital they soiled, dirty, torn clothes and in despair, the first thing I and other workers do is to bring back their dignity by providing the basics such as basin, soap, lotion and help them take a bath if they are unable,” she narrated.

While a woman takes a birth, Ester is busy give her “encouraging words” before a meal is offered. Ester emphasizes that it is important to love this work because the patients will take long to feel secure and loved.

She narrated the nature of violent attack on the survivors. Speaking passionately in Swahili Ester tells gruesome levels of violent that are beyond one’s comprehension.

“These militias use many methods to rape women, it includes pushing bayonets or logs into the woman’s vagina, some drop burning hot plastic liquids into the vagina and even more heartbreaking is looking at girls as young as 7 years raped this way.”

After meals survivors are taken for medical tests and she estimates that out of 100 screened survivors for various infections about 10 are found to be have HIV/AIDS.

Ester’s routine

Ester arrives at Panzi hospital at 7:00 am and leaves at 4:00 pm.  First task for her is to prepare the women survivors for the prayers. These prayers are an important part of counseling but also for detection of recovery of the women. After prayers the sexual violence survivors then return to their wards and go through different therapy using confidence building activities, health exercise, talks about hygiene and nutrition.

I attended the exercise session where Ester and other social workers bring up songs and rhymes about different societal issues in a satirical way. It is in moments like these that they take note which patient is fully recovered those that are not.

“As we go through the various exercises for about 30 minutes, I track those who are not active and follows them up in individual sessions to get the underlying cause for their inaction.”

Most women with most stigma are those who have had children from the rapes or those who raped by close relatives. They are afraid of returning to the society not only because of the rapes but also the fear that they and their children will not be accepted. Others cannot easily accept their own children.

Everyday hundreds of Panzi hospital staff like Ester work with the survivors of violence and giving hope back to such women is one of the toughest jobs. Ester tells of one of the stories that have touched her most, a story of a raped child mother who was suicidal.

“It was during the counseling session, 12 year old girl told me she had been raped got and a child as a result.  When the child was about 6 months, life was very difficult for,” Ester narrates. “ It was a baby boy and she walked to the lake to throw him in. And she told me that suddenly the baby looked at her face and smiled, then she stopped and wondered what he was telling her. She tried three times to drown the baby but wouldn’t and then she decide to come to Panzi.

The 12 year-old girl told Ester that she didn’t like “the child” because it was from the Interahamwe and in future he would want answers about his father. After days of counseling with Ester, the girl began to see the child as her own not just from the Interahamwe.

Interahamwe is a Rwandan paramilitary group that has been operating in DRC since the end of the Rwanda genocide in 1994. More than 5 million people are estimated to have been killed in DRC from 1997 and 2008 both directly in fighting and others due to diseases.

It is after listening to such stories that the psychologist takes over from Ester. Ester and other social workers are the first line of hope for many women who come to Panzi and they stay with them for months.

Ester’s joy.

You see a glitter in Ester’s eyes as she tells the story of restoring hope and having these women accepted back in the community. She tells of her followup trips of four women from a village whom she had looked after for many months. After a year of leaving Panzi, they were still supporting each other and involved in agriculture and sustaining their families.

She tells of another woman whose husband had rejected her because he insisted she had HIV. In this case Ester brought the man back with her to Panzi where the two could get tests and after they came out negative the man accepted the woman.

Often the husbands refuse the women and many of the survivors lose property rights on top of suffering to raise their children they came back with.

All over Eastern DRC, the challenge for survivors of sexual violence remains access to primary as well as secondary health care, which is due to displacement, political insecurity and lack of capacity within the health centres. And it is difficult for many to feel safe in the very communities where they experienced the violence. Living in their homes without an assurance that this will never happen again is the most difficult time, Ester says. And this is because the conflicts are still going on with no end in sight.

I spoke to Ester during a trip supported by Isis-Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange (Isis-WICCE) and the Stephen Lewis Foundation program – African Institute for Integrated Responses to Violence Against Women and HIV/AIDS. The program is aimed at creating a network of African-based, women centered technical support on issues of violence against women, HIV/AIDS and counseling.

Dr. Dennis Mukwege, the Director of Panzi hospital said the hope women who are sexually violated lies in finding a lasting political solution that would eliminate the current environment that makes it easy to target women.

And the Congo presidential election is refuted , now more than ever survivors of sexual violence in Easter DRC need to see action from African Union and international community to ensure there’s no escalation in violence.