Tags: africa, babembe, dr congo, fizi, gender inequality, great lakes region, mboko, misogyny, rape, reintegration, sexual violence, sos femmes en danger, sud kivu
For survivors, the experience of sexual violence causes painful and often chronic physical problems, including (but not limited to) STDs, fistulas, irregular bleeding, and chronic abdominal pain. However, perhaps an even more distressing outcome of rape in the Congo is the social stigmatization that survivors of sexual violence endure at the hands of their families and communities. Attitudes towards survivors of sexual violence are quite indicative of the second-class status of women in Congolese society, particularly in underdeveloped, rural areas such as Fizi Territory.
After having suffered from an act of sexual violence, oftentimes a survivor will be banished from her family and derided by her community. The husband of a survivor may expel her from the home, leaving her without support, kinship, or protection. A survivor will be labeled (quite erroneously) as the “wife of the soldiers” or a “prostitute”, and openly mocked or shunned. Thus, the post-rape social ramifications in Fizi Territory are devastating for survivors, especially in a society that places a premium on social interaction. The shame and rejection may prevent a survivor from participating in income-generating activities (agriculture, commerce), and oftentimes will prevent her from seeking assistance.
SOS FED staff work very hard at encouraging survivors to come to SOS FED for assistance, and work with civil, traditional, and religious authorities to find survivors in the area who need assistance. Once a survivor has entered a SOS FED center, she can receive group therapy and individual counseling sessions, as well as participate in group income-generating activities that also teach risk-reduction behavior.
However, what happens to a woman once she has completed the 3-month course of assistance provided by SOS FED? Will she be re-accepted by her family and/or community? The reintegration process, implemented in 2011, addresses this question. Each SOS FED center has a male reintegration officer, who acts as an advocate for reintegrating beneficiaries. Thus far, SOS FED has 3 reintegration officers: Luandja Eca Ricardo (Kikonde), M’Munga Selemane (Kazimia), and Lubunga Wilondja (Mboko).
The reintegration officer is tasked with breaking down the misconceptions about survivors of sexual violence within Congolese society, at least to the point where a survivor is able to rejoin her family and resume her life. The reintegration meets with the family, in particular the husband, of the soon-to-be reintegrated beneficiary. The reintegration officer educates the family on the rights of survivors of sexual violence, breaks down the myth that the survivor is to blame for the rape, and tries to convince them to re-accept the survivor back into the family.
The reintegration officer works very closely with the mwami to achieve these goals. The mwami is a traditional position of authority, also known as the chef coutumiere. The mwami/chef coutumiere is a hereditary position, passed down from father to son. A mwami may have a constituency ranging from a village, a quartier, or an entire town. While having no civil or state authority, traditional authorities are still regarded as important figures in Congolese society. Ordinary citizens often consult a mwami for counsel on important decisions, the resolution of disputes, or just for simple advice. State authorities often have to work with the cooperation of the mwami in order to carry out state business.
As a person of authority who is respected by the community, the counsel of a mwami can go a long way in assisting with the integration process. Before beginning reintegration efforts in a village/town, SOS FED reintegration officers have several meetings with the local mwami to educate them on the principles of reintegration and to gain their support and trust for the reintegration process. Including the mwami in the reintegration process also helps educate the community at large about the rights of survivors of sexual violence.
SOS FED reintegration officers accompany reintegrating women, often over great distances, to their home villages. Reintegrating beneficiaries are encouraged to continue the risk-reduction activities they learned at the SOS FED center, as well as disseminate this information among their friends and neighbors.
The success of the reintegration process is quite evident. According to all three reintegration officers, there has only been one case where a woman was abandoned by her husband after reintegration was carried out. As of the end of the month of September, 21 beneficiaries have been reintegrated from Kikonde/Kazimia, and 19 beneficiaries have been reintegrated from Mboko.
My next few blog entries will be profiles of several people from in/near Mboko who are involved in the reintegration process: 2 former SOS FED beneficiaries and 2 mwami working closely with SOS FED.