From rape and shame to resilience and pride: program provides hope to survivor in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo

Article Date

25 November 2013

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

“I was in the field when they came.” 

Espérance keeps her eyes fixed on her hands, folded on the table in front of her, as she talks to me.  Her hair cascades in long braids over her shoulders, sweeping against the vivid blue and yellow print of her dress.

“They came out of nowhere, and they took me away, into the bush. I was just a child.”

I met Espérance – whose name means ‘hope’ in French – in Ituri District, a conflict-affected region of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I was there carrying out an evaluation of programs supported by the Trust Fund for Victims (TFV), an international body established by the Rome Statute to address the harm resulting from crimes under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Our evaluation report, summarizing what we found, has just been released.

Through local implementing partners, the TFV provides reparations and assistance to support the physical, psychological, and economic needs of victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Espérance is one of nearly 110,000 women, men, and children, who have received life-changing assistance through the TFV.

Now her eyes meet mine, holding them to make sure I am really listening to what she’s about to say.

“It was the same for all of us.  We were all children. They stole us away. They stole our innocence. They stole our lives from us.” 

I look around at the faces of the eight other women in the room. Like Espérance, they are all young, between 18 and 25. They are also all survivors of atrocious physical and sexual violence during the height of the conflict in eastern DRC. They are all mothers of children born of the repeated rapes they suffered at the hands of their captors. And they are all rebuilding their lives thanks to the counselling, training, and support they have received from a series of local and international NGOs. In the past three years, this group of young women has worked closely with one of the TFV’s implementing partners to continue their journeys of recovery from the emotional traumas they still carry.

Espérance and her peers explain to me that in their communities before the war, every family had a vision for its daughters: that they would mature into women who would marry and take care of their children and their parents when they are adults. Now, they explain, after all that has happened to them as girls, this vision was ruined. Those young women who are lucky enough to survive the ordeal of being kept as sexual slaves and domestic servants over years of living in captivity with armed groups are often rejected by their families when they return.  hey are called names, refused entry into their family homes, and the children they have borne are stigmatized as ‘bastards’.

“This is the war’s fault. It’s not our fault. Why can’t people understand this and stop acting like it’s our fault?”

Espérance refuses to accept the blame and stigma others would place on her for these rapes. But for her and many of her peers, this rejection brings shame, isolation, and further trauma that amplify the war crimes they have suffered. But with the support of the TFV, women like Espérance can begin to recover their emotional, physical, and economic well-being.

“They gave us counselling and helped us see that we could rebuild our lives. They gave us help to heal the wounds that sit on our hearts. We still have these emotional wounds, but the counselling helped me feel like a real person again.”

Beyond the young women’s very personal internal healing, Espérance explained how important it is for them to learn a trade that helps them earn their keep. The TFV’s partner trained her to sew and gave her a sewing machine. She has used these skills and seed investment to jump start a tailoring business in her town. This, she said, would bring some respect and help to reduce the stigma she experiences.

“We need to do more to help bring us some balance; we can show others the example of our success. They can be proud and convinced because we have to work hard for acceptance- this helps us heal and recover, too.”

Like many other survivors of rape who receive assistance from the TFV, Espérance has a small but thriving business – and a dream for greater success. The dress she wears is the best advertisement of her skill and her flair for design. Her reputation has quickly grown, as has her business. She now has three machines, and has two apprentices working under her. She imagines a day when she has a whole row of machines and is the top tailor for all of her community.

“Sometimes the rapists still come to our villages or we see them on the street. I try to be resilient, to not let it affect me. Someday, they’ll come and they will see that I’m an important woman, that they did not win. They’ll see that I survived and that I succeeded.”