Scarred by Rape but Spreading Hope among Women Refugees

Most DRC refugees in camps southwestern Uganda are women and children. Photo: ACT/DCA/Mai Gad

LWF Uganda Seeks to Increase Protection for Congolese Fleeing into Uganda

(LWI) - Sitting on a mud floor at the Rwamwanja refugee camp in southwest Uganda, Shama (not her real name), a 35-year-old Congolese from North Kivu Province, recalls how she was attacked and gang-raped by four men at her home in 2010. She later tested positive for HIV but kept her ordeal a secret, afraid to share her shame.

The mother to a four-year-old daughter lost contact with her husband, and eventually fled to Uganda in early 2012.

At another settlement for refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), 27-year-old Farida reflects on some painful experiences over the last year. “Back home […] I was raped, but I only got assistance when I arrived at the refugee settlement here,” says the single parent to three children.

“Looking back now, I can say that today I feel valued and recognized from a local and international level. Because of the support I received here, I have become empowered and independent to the extent that I have managed to sustain my family since my husband died,” she adds.

The two women are among thousands whose lives have been scarred by rape and sexual and gender-based violence as a result of the conflict in the DRC. Millions have lost their lives since the conflict began in 1998. And, despite the 2003 peace agreement formally ending the war, intermittent fighting between armed groups continues to claim more lives and displace tens of thousands internally and into neighboring countries. Recent resurgence of violence in the North Kivu province had pushed more than 66,000 Congolese into southwestern Uganda by the end of December 2013 (UNHCR).

But refugees also face the threat of gender-based violence in the host countries. “One day I asked a bodaboda (motorbike taxi) to take me to a [local] market outside the settlement so that I could buy vegetables to retail in the camp,” Shama recalls. “On the way back, as it was dark, the bodaboda driver on reaching a bushy area, stopped and raped me. He threatened to kill me if I resisted or made an alarm.”

At Rwamwanja refugee camp, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is working with humanitarian partners including The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) to support the refugees, who mostly include women and children.

Through its Department for World Service (DWS) country program in Uganda, the LWF provides community-based volunteer groups with skills on raising awareness about sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

Greater Access to Counseling and Family Planning

Today, thanks to LWF training, Shama is a social worker at Rwamwanja refugee settlement. She helps women like Farida to access services such as family planning and counseling for HIV and AIDS at the camp’s health center.

At Rwamwanja, home to over 50,000 refugees mainly from DRC, 142 cases of rape had been reported between January 2013 and January 2014. “We apply different psychosocial approaches to support the victims including individual counseling, encouraging round-the-table dialogues when a couple is involved, and involving parents or guardians when the victim is a minor,” says Betty Lamunu, monitoring and evaluation manager at LWF Uganda.

The LWF works with UNHCR and its partners in the global churches’ network ACT Alliance to increase access to essential services such as food, water and sanitation, alternative livelihoods and food security, as well as conflict resolution and peace-building activities. It plans to provide more SGBV protection and community services in the settlement camp and in the host community.

Deterrent Measures in DRC

The UN refugee agency says its monitoring teams had registered 705 cases of sexual violence in eastern DRC between January and July 2013, including 619 cases of rape. UNHCR describes rape as a growing threat for women and girls, noting that recorded cases of sexual violence in North Kivu soared from 4,689 in 2011 to 7,075 in 2012, and many more are not reported.

“Fighting the rape phenomenon in DRC needs deterrent measures, especially bringing the perpetrators to justice,” says Emile Mpanya, LWF representative in DRC.

He, however, notes that most court houses that can handle such cases are located far away from places where the abuse takes place. In addition, the victims do not have the means to move back and forth from their villages to the courts to follow their cases, explains Mpanya.

Pressure needs to be exerted on the DRC government, its army and also on all armed fighters who are the main perpetrators of the violence, the LWF representative stresses. He adds that the LWF collaborates with local organizations such as the Dynamique des Femmes Juristes lawyers’ network, which assists survivors of sexual violence coming from rural areas.

(Betty Lamunu, monitoring and evaluation manager at LWF Uganda contributed to this article)