The orange soda tasted different to Grace.
“Is this Fanta or beer?” she asked the young man who’d bought it for her.
Grace was parched. The sun was out in full force in Goma, a town in eastern Congo. If he was buying, she was drinking. She wasn’t concerned that she’d just met him. Although she didn’t know him, he went to the same school as she did and they had walked to class together that day.
Grace’s head started to swim. She couldn’t sit up straight. Then everything went black.
When she woke up, she was on the floor in a strange bedroom. The man who bought her the Fanta was with her. She tried to stand up but couldn’t.
“What did you give me?” she asked. “I don’t feel normal.”
“No. Just go back to sleep,” he said. “You’re just tired.”
She slowly regained consciousness and looked down.
At that moment, Grace knew she’d been raped.
A Disturbing New Trend
In back alleys and along main streets of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this scene is becoming disturbingly common. Rape has been a war tactic in recent years here, a way for armed groups to tear apart communities, destroy villages and flush families from their land.
Another reason for rape, say experts, is that soldiers are based far from their wives for months or years. Their salaries are small and often late, which raises frustrations and the incidents of looting and rape. But rape counselors here say that while this continues among armed groups, they are seeing a disturbing new trend: a spike in civilians raping women. Men are now raping teenagers whom they have grown up with, who live in their neighborhoods.
Anastasie Balingene, a rape counselor who works for Catholic Relief Services’ partner Caritas Goma, is one of the first people these young women tell their stories to. With her big round glasses and calm motherly voice, girls open up to her; they hide nothing. They often confide in her before their own mothers.
Anastasie is an expert listener. Maybe it’s those kind eyes or that disarming smile. Whatever it is, the girls trust her, and before long, between the spluttering Kiswahili and racking sobs, the teenagers reveal the grisly details of what grown men did to them.
Fear, Trauma and Shame
Nobody knows exactly how many rapes are committed in Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces. Many women never report what happens to them. The shame and ostracism that follows is too much to handle. They know that if word gets out that they were raped, the prospects of marriage go down dramatically.
Recent statistics provided by Caritas shine a light on the problem. Between January 2009 and the end of April, 749 women were treated for rape at hospitals supported by Caritas, an increase from years past.
- Of the women who reported to hospitals after being raped, 61 percent came from camps for people displaced by violence.
- Most of the women (87 percent) were raped during the day. The rest were raped at night.
- Eighty percent of women reported the rape to the hospital at least a month after it happened.
These statistics reveal a shift in how rapes occur. More rapes now seem to happen during the day. Camps are now a target. And the high numbers of women reporting late to the hospitals confirm that most women are still too traumatized immediately following the act to seek help.
Anastasie says the fear of being raped weighs on women who haven’t gone through it. She won’t let her own girls go out to fetch water early in the morning when women start lining up at the outdoor taps. And she definitely doesn’t let them out at night.
The problem, she says, is impunity. The court system in eastern Congo is unreliable. Files mysteriously go missing and cases can’t be prosecuted. She’s heard of authorities being bought off for $1,500 but says amounts vary. She and Caritas mediators who work with families and help identify rapists to police say that they have been targeted by rapists who return to the communities after being released from prison. While nobody has ever physically threatened her, Anastasie says word has spread in the community where she lives that she is involved in helping women. This has her nervous.
To prosecute a rapist here, a woman needs a medical certificate proving that a rape occurred, which requires an examination within two days. But many wait weeks or months. By that time, doctors say, it’s often difficult to find evidence that the rape occurred. Complicating matters, in North Kivu, a province of 800,000 people, there are only three practicing gynecologists.
Hope for the Future
Just outside Anastasie’s window sit eight teenagers, ranging from 14 to 19 years old. All have been raped, some by men in their own neighborhoods. One has braided bangs with beads the color of Skittles. A flower blooms out of the braids of another. With their delicate features and beaded bracelets, these teens look like Girl Scouts, not rape victims
It’s a little quieter today, because Maggie isn’t there. She usually causes a ruckus, and it falls to Grace to calm her down.
Maggie is Grace’s 1-year-old daughter. After she was born, Grace didn’t even want to look at her. She neglected her, didn’t wash her as often as she should have. She didn’t hug her like a newborn. This was a child of rape, and she wanted nothing to do with her.
But then Anastasie stepped in. She told her that the child is innocent, that Grace should love her. It took some convincing, and it didn’t happen overnight. But eventually Grace warmed up to Maggie.
This is just one anecdote. Anastasie has a little red notebook full of them: There are names and dates and neighborhoods and descriptions of how girls’ insides were damaged. As she runs down a list of cases—each one more horrific than the last—the group of teenage girls outside are sewing school uniforms.
They will talk about what happened, says Anastasie, but it won’t be easy for them. The tears will start and then they’ll clam up. They don’t want to have to relive it. They’re just coming around to thinking about boyfriends and, maybe eventually, marriage.
Something to Dream About
Outside, hand-cranked Singer sewing machines thrum as hems are stitched. Véronique Hahambu, a jolly seamstress with a tape measure around her neck, leads the group. Her three-month course teaches the teens sewing skills. When they finish, Caritas will help them set up their own businesses. While the skills they learn here are important, so is the camaraderie. The whispered jokes between backstitches are another part of the healing process.
They don’t talk about what happened to them, but they won’t forget it either. It’s starting to recede, thanks to Anastasie and the sewing classes. They finally have something to concentrate on, something to dream about.
One of the students, threading material under a hammering needle, says she’d like to open a boutique someday and sell wedding gowns.
One day, the women of Goma may flock to her for her hand-stitched dresses.
Those elegant dresses might even become the talk of the town.
And one day, this shy girl with brown eyes might just wear her own sequined creation when she walks down the aisle.
Names of raped women have been changed to protect their identities.