Global Dispatch: Democratic Republic of the Congo

One of’s policy focuses is on ensuring justice and healing for survivors of sexual assault. Our work on these issues currently is limited to the domestic arena. However, we cannot ignore the very simple fact that the issues of sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse and other issues of violence against women, are pervasive and exist around the world.

At Joyful Heart, we envision a community that collectively turns towards these issues—a community that says to a survivor, “We hear you. We believe you. We feel for you. And your healing is our priority.” To that end, we want to acknowledge and honor that we are a part of a larger global community and have the opportunity to advocate on behalf of others around the world.

Today, we’re pleased to introduce a new recurring Backlog Blog feature entitled “Global Dispatches” that will offer first person views from individuals and organizations around the world that address the issues we seek to address. We hope that these updates will inspire our supporters to engage both locally and globally on these issues.

Our inaugural post. comes from Amy Ernst who is currently working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“The girls are not doing well. They’re not doing well at all,” explains a young woman with a baby on her back. I’m standing on a small dirt road in the eastern region of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, speaking with a village elected “counselor;” the woman is very young and has only finished the equivalent of first grade. But education isn’t as important as compassion, when helping the never-ending victims of rape in Congo.

“How old are they?” I ask. The director of the organization I work with, Maman Marie Nzoli, translates my French into the local Kinande and back again. Two days ago, Maman Marie received word that there were three new survivors of sexual violence who needed help.

“Fourteen and fifteen years old.”

“Are they here? I’d like to speak with them if they would like to speak with me.”

There’s not much in the way of counseling I can do because of the cultural and language divide, yet simply listening to survivors and showing them that there are people who care seems to do a world of good.

“No, they were taken to the field with older mothers. Not to work, but to keep them so they won’t have to be alone.”

After the three girls were raped in a valley that’s hours away on foot, they fled to a random village. This young counselor had never met them, nor had anyone else in the village, yet all three were immediately absorbed into the community. The kindness and love of such a seemingly simple act overwhelms me for a moment.

In the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, war has been raging for over a decade. It is often referred to as “the worst place on earth to be a woman,” and the “rape capital of the world.” Around 6 million people have been killed; mostly civilians, but phrases and statistics don’t quite cover it.

Although COPERMA, the local organization I’m working with, subsists on extremely minimal funding, it has been working to help the victims of this war since the day it began. Maman Marie and her “team” have established ten “girl-mother” centers in various villages. Each center provides a refuge for survivors, primary and secondary schooling and attempts to provide vocational training such as soap-making or sewing. When girls as young as twelve are raped they are forced to flee their villages, lose their families, and often end up giving birth. COPERMA helps the children by placing them in foster families in different villages and by supporting the foster parents with small plots of land and seeds for planting.

The work at COPERMA is both heart-breaking and hopeful. Speaking with a girl or woman who can only stand to look at the floor and knowing there are endless survivors like her is not something one can ever get used to. But after being treated in a hospital and being treated with respect and kindness, all of the women I’ve worked with have found their strength and regained a sense of faith in themselves, or at least started in that direction.

The Congo is a country deemed unimportant by the international community, aside from the immense mineral wealth fueling the war. Yet, I wouldn’t agree that it is the “worst place on earth to be a woman,” because although there is a level of pain and fear no human should ever experience, there is also laughter, community, love, family, strength, and hope.

At first, I’m saddened and disheartened by the news of the three girls, but as we leave the little village and the people who took in three terrified strangers, I feel nothing but hope.

Stationed in North Kivu, Congo, since last Spring, Amy works with rape victims and other victims of war through COPERMA, a small non-profit, while living with the Crosiers, an order of monks and priests. More of Amy’s stories can be found on her blog as well as her frequent guest posts on Nicholas Kristof’s blog for the New York Times.

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