DRC: Restoring dignity to survivors of sexual violence

Florance cuts her son's hair in her new salon

Florance Kwinja from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) fell into a deep depression after surviving rape and the death of her husband. But having taken the chance of a training course with CARE, she is rebuilding her life and that of her family.

In the DRC, rape is routinely used as a weapon of war. Perpetrators often go unprosecuted.

Florance Kwinja was on her way to sell corn and beans at the market outside Goma, the town where she lives. It was a bus commute she had never thought twice about. But this journey was to change her life forever.

“We were ambushed by a group of combatants,” Florance says. “They held me down and raped me. I was convinced I would die that day. I stopped living.”

Florance, now 48, was no stranger to violence. She became a widow in 2003 when her house was ransacked and her husband, a successful merchant, killed. She and her children fled their remote village to Goma.

Help and justice hard to find

Women who have experienced sexual violence  often become outcasts in their communities. Extreme poverty and loss of dignity have damaging effects in their lives. Over 82% of displaced people turn to host communities and organisations like CARE for support.

After the death of her husband, Florance worked tirelessly to feed and clothe her children. But after the rape, she fell into deep depression. People who Florance considered friends no longer greeted her. The once proud woman could not longer look people in the eye. When it seemed things could not get worse, two of her eight children went missing. After three years, Florance gave up hope of ever finding them alive.

To understand what is happening in DRC, you have to turn back the clock to 1994. The genocide that claimed nearly one million lives in neighbouring Rwanda spilled over to the DRC. Fighting between the Congolese army, rebels and home-grown militias began over power and land, which is rich in gold, diamonds and coltan, a sought-after mineral vital to the manufacture of mobile phones and other consumer electronics. In a country with one of the world’s worst poverty rates and mass corruption, the result has been the deadliest conflict since World War II.

Women now most frequent casualties of war

“Women here are in deep pain,” says Yawo Douvon, country director for CARE in the DRC. “But it's not just the type of physical pain that can be repaired in a hospital. It's psychological pain that you can’t see that takes more time to heal.”

CARE organises support groups and training to teach women who have suffered sexual violence, and others affected by the conflict, how to make shoes and cut hair – skills they can use to build a new life.

Change for the better

Florance jumped at the chance to learn a new skill. She signed up to learn to be a hairdresser, a trade almost exclusively reserved for men in her country. Whatever gender barriers she faced, she knew things would change for the better.

“It was as if someone had thrown me a rope to help me climb out of a deep, dark hole,” she says, adding that her children would be able to have a “normal life”.

After completing training, Florance opened her own barber shop in June 2011. CARE provided her with a generator, hair cutting supplies, mirrors, lamps and other necessities to get her started.

The boy sitting in her chair today was extra special. He is one of Florance’s two eldest sons. Both were reunited with her after years of separation. The young men have also received skills training through CARE - to become a carpenter and plumber.

Looking at Florance today you could not recognise her past suffering through the proud smile on her face. She says, “I’ve had a lot of deception in my life. Clients, visitors and CARE are my new family.” People in her neighbourhood have begun greeting her again. And Florance, looking them in the eyes, greets them back.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.