A few months ago there was a report that put DRC as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. I found this kind of description troubling even in the face of what many of the women and Congo as a country have gone through. I even wondered how Dr.Denis Mukwege, the director at Panzi hospital, a man who has dedicated himself to the care of sexually violated women, would think.
I had learnt about him through the media from a few awards he had won. I never expected to be in Bukavu, South Kivu and at Panzi soon. This week am at Panzi with a group of psychologists and Psychiatrists doing an assesment of trauma among health workers at Panzi. It’s the main hospital caring for survivors of sexual violence which is unacceptably high in South Kivu. Many health workers wondered how they could deal with trauma and sexual violence yet the source of all this-the conflict-is far from being solved.
I always wondered how their hearts are not in pieces, how they are not resigned amidst all this heart breaking stories. But now interacting with them I am learning from their resilience and their frankness on the challenges they face. For this week we are listening to the stories they listen to on daily basis. I am here with Isis-WICCE and the Stephen Lewis Foundation on their program- African Institute for Integrated Responses to Violence Against Women and HIV/AIDS which aims to create a network of African-based, women centered technical support on issues of violence against women, HIV/AIDS and counseling.
Not everyone here is a victim of sexual violence but it’s the hospital that has a big department dedicated to sexual violence. Below are random pictures i took during morning prayers and training of health workers.
This week I was in Lira in northern Uganda at a medical camp for women with reproductive health complications most of them sustained during the 23 year LRA war. Organisers had no idea 400 women would turn just on the the first day.
I was taking interviews from these women most of whom it was the first time they were going to see a gynecologist since the various sexual violations happened. It is always a tough position to be in. Women as old as 60 years narrating how they were raped, how no one wants to hear their story, how the community calls them all sorts of names it is beyond what i can describe.
One of the very first interviews, I was speaking to Akello (not real name) a woman who was abducted together with her co-wife. They reached the bush and were forcibly ‘married’ to one man. They both endured years of sexual violations including gang rapes. They returned 6 years ago, they didn’t know they both had HIV. Akello tells me they passed it on to their husband they had left behind and he died 3 years ago. She hasn’t really dealt with her own trauma and she blames herself for ‘killing’ her husband.
Just like in all interviews, we always take time out when the woman needs sometime pull herself together. At the end she calls me back and says “You are my child, I shouldn’t be telling you this.” I had no words to add, I just sat down for some minutes. I felt she wanted to spare me from listening, listening to horrors that many others preferred untold. We had been through it all, her life in the bush, her life after and how she hardly owns anything. How she struggles to feed and educate her 2 grand children. Of the 8 children she had, only one survived. It’s tougher to listen to a woman your mother’s or grandmother’s age talk about how she was raped. You can’t easily cry because you don’t want to derail her further. You can’t help see your mother in the faces of all these women left with almost nothing of their dignity. Yet they tell you these stories that mothers can never tell their children because they think you can help in a way.
I met Ester Abeja, she insisted that I put her face out. She was afraid that covering her face was more like what the community and government have done-ignore their plight. Like most of the women that turned up for the screening, she had complications. She is suffering from what doctors called uterine prolapse (the descent of the uterus into the vagina or beyond). In her case her uterus is hanging out. She was abducted and violated by the LRA rebels for many years. Ester needs a surgery that would cost about 200 USD. She has had this condition for years and she is raising 5 children whom the husband abandoned. Before I spoke to her she was visibly traumatised and she told me many times she has thought of killing her husband who now has two other wives. We talked about it and she agrees that wouldn’t solve her problems, we have to concentrate on getting her the operation to remove her uterus.
Most of the women i spoke to had been abandoned by their families once they came back from the LRA. They face a high level of stigma. For those who had children with the rebels and came back with them it’s even much more difficult. Their children are called ‘Kony’s children.’
Ester had one child with one of the rebels, she’s now about 6 years. “Do they think I wanted to be raped by these rebels? Do they think i wanted to kill my own child?” Ester wonders. She tells me another chilling story of how rebels forced her to kill her one year old baby gal by smashing her skull on a tree. Another young son was captured with her and she has no idea if he’s still alive. She tells me she rarely sleeps and you can see it in her eyes.
I left Ester in Ogur. I am hopeful that Isis-WICCE, the organisation i worked with on this medical camp, can get money to get Ester and others the much needed surgery. There’s such lack of attention for survivors of sexual violence who are mostly women all over the LRA affected areas. And if she gets the surgery she will need support and most of these women need a lot of economic empowerment but few reach government programs.
One doctor from Lira told me, “When war ends, there’s a silent war that has to be fought.”
He said the challenge so far has been that “politicians think they will just put structures which they can use to say this is what i did during my time and ignore peoples needs.” And i don’t expect my government to get Ester the much needed help because even the health center we were at didn’t have any drugs to give to those with the simplest of the reproductive health problems.