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Goma, 28 September 2012 – It was a day like any other in one of the literacy centres for displaced women, managed by the Jesuit Refugee Service in North Kivu in eastern Congo. But here the students were not just learning to read and write, they were exploring delicate issues of sexual and other violence, as part of a healing process.

The course brings a sense to structure to the lives of these displaced women. It not only offers them a place where they can improve their survival skills, it is a private and safe space where they can share experiences of violence in this war-torn region.

When the JRS training officer touched the argument of sexual violence, the women, one by one, raised their hands and spoke about their experiences. Opening up and speaking about their experiences, they shared their memories of feeling vulnerable, their desire for protection by authorities and their right to justice for the crimes committed against them.

It was the first time these women had spoken among themselves about their traumatic experiences of sexual violence at the hands of armed men groups and civilians. The issue is taboo and when made public typically leads to the stigmatisation of women survivors of sexual violence by their communities.

Witness. JRS spoke to two women who courageously decided to speak out, run the risk of social stigmatisation.

The first, Diane*, was ambushed by Congolese military while looking for firewood. After desperately trying to defend herself, the men finally overpowered her. Thrown against a tree, hit repeatedly on the back and head, they tore off Diane's clothes and raped her.

Although she courageously reported the attack to the police, the soldiers, Diane said, were just transferred to another district. Diane revealed that from that day on she has felt terrible and lost all ability to concentrate.

The second woman, Divine*, was a widow forced to flee her home village to seek safety in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) during the war. Here, a man broke into Divine's home in the middle of the night and raped her.

Consequently, she became pregnant and gave birth to twins in the camp. Divine's family disowned her, refused to help her or the children and accused her of being responsible for the rape. Since then the young woman has been afraid of cultivating crops on her land. Divine asks that the perpetrator be brought to justice and that she be guaranteed some form of financial reparation.

Sexual- and gender-based violence plagues communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, 48 women every hour are subjected to sexual- and gender-based violence throughout Congo. The consequences of these crimes on the physical and mental health of victims are devastating. Due to the inadequacy of the Congolese judicial system and the widespread climate of impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence (frequently members of armed group and the military), the survivors are rarely guaranteed the justice.

Protection. In North Kivu, the dignity of women and their right to physical, mental and moral integrity is constantly violated. Women urgently need protection against rape and all other forms of violence, the responsibility, in primis, of the Congolese authorities. In line with their respective mandates, the UN peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) should also play a fundamental role in the protection of the rights of the displaced.

*These names have been changed to protect the identity of the women

Danilo Giannese, Advocacy and Communications Officer, JRS Great Lakes Africa

For information on advocacy actions on rape and gender violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, visit the website of the Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict