A Sign of Hope from the Congo

August 30, 2010, 4:30 PM EST

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Women and girls of the Democratic Republic of Congo will never be safe from sexual assault and rape until there is peace in the country, Esther Munyerenkana told the CAW/TCA Joint Council in her address upon receiving the CAW's Nelson Mandela award on August 28.

Munyerenkana is a social worker at the Panzi Hospital who works with women who have survived brutal sexual assaults and rape, to help rebuild their lives.  Between five and 10 women enter the hospital each day, sometimes as many as 30.

The DRC is thought to have the highest incidence of rape in the world, according to Action Aid, an international anti-poverty organization. Rape is used as a weapon of war by armed gangs to destroy families and communities in the decades-long conflict which has ravaged the region.

In explaining the situation of women and girls in the DRC, Esther tried to put words to what are often indescribable cases of the most severe kinds of human cruelty -the murder of husbands in front of their wives and children, the mutilating and severing of limbs and other body parts and brutal sexual assaults forced upon women and children from tiny babies to the elderly. 

The DRC is a largely agrarian society and women and girls are most at risk of rape or assault while working in the fields or travelling to work, making it impossible to provide for their families. Malnutrition is also rampant as a result.

Each year, more than 3,500 women are treated at the Panzi Hospital. Formerly a maternity hospital, it was transformed into a rape treatment and rehabilitation centre in 2004.

"The way these women are suffering does not leave us indifferent," said Munyerenkana, her eyes welling up with tears. "Social workers and counsellors also absorb some of this pain."

Despite the high prevalence of rape, survivors are severely stigmatized and in many cases cannot or are afraid to access treatment, putting them in greater danger of disease or infection.  Women who have been raped could also be at risk of being rejected or cast out by their families.

Women are traumatized when they enter the Panzi Hospital and could be suffering from injuries. Many have made a long journey to the hospital. The women are given a sanitation kit so they can clean up and are sent for medical and psychological exams. They also benefit from counseling during their stay as well as skills training, including functional literacy, sewing and weaving. From the attack, they may have also contracted HIV, for which they will need treatment.

Aissatou Diajhaté, director of programs for the Stephen Lewis Foundation said that the situation in the DRC can seem overwhelming, gloomy and painful, but she sees signs of hope and the work of Esther is one of them. "Esther helps repair their bodies, but also repairs their souls. She helps restore their dignity and tell their stories."

Munyerenkana was recommended to the CAW by former Ontario NDP leader, UN ambassador and UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa Stephen Lewis and playwright and activist Eve Ensler. The award is given every three years by CAW to an individual or organization for exceptional achievement in the promotion of human rights.  It is named in honour of Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa.  It recognizes the struggle, courage and achievement of Mandela in fighting against apartheid and in advancing human rights and social justice.

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