FEATURE: Giving a voice to the victims of sexual and physical violence

19 August 2009
Women marching against sexual violence in the DRC (file photo)

For nearly two and a half years, Roselidah Ondeko has been at work in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), helping local women find their voices to speak out about the epidemic of gender-based sexual and physical violence in the region.

Roselidah is employed by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and coordinates the programme on sexual violence in the provinces of North and South Kivu, which is financially supported by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). She is based in Goma, North Kivu’s provincial capital.

The eastern DRC, which faces ongoing conflict between rebels and the Congolese army, is notorious for the high rates of sexual and physical violence against civilians, especially women.

“At the beginning it was very difficult to listen to all these stories and to see what these women had been subjected to. I had to confront it with colleagues practising the same profession,” Roselidah explains in an interview with the UN News Centre on the occasion of World Humanitarian Day, which is marked today.

But Roselidah recalls that these female victims of sexual violence who have come to seek medical and psychological support have decided not to succumb. “When you look at what they endured, you see that they have not given in. They have hope,” she says. Moreover, rather than speaking of victims, she prefers to use the word ‘survivors.’

Roselidah cites the example of a woman who had been raped, then abandoned by her husband. Under the programme she was given a goat as a source of revenue. That was in 2007.

“In 2008, when I met her, she already had six more goats,” Roselidah says. “She said she felt she had to continue, because if she let things go she didn’t know who would take care of her children.”

According to data collected by UNFPA the number of reported cases of sexual violence has grown between January and June in South Kivu compared to the same period of last year. That could be explained, according to the Roselidah, by the relative calm in certain areas of the province.

“The survivors can now have access to medical care and psychological services and health workers can reach areas that were previously inaccessible because of insecurity,” she explains.

The perpetrators of sexual violence are in the majority men in uniform, whether soldiers of the Congolese army or fighters from the rebel groups. “We see more and more children affected” by this sexual violence, Roselidah adds.

Before she arrived in the DRC, Roselidah was posted in the Darfur region of western Sudan and Uganda. When she compares the current situation with that in Darfur for example, the UNFPA staffer notes that the people in the DRC speak more openly of the sexual violence that has been perpetrated.

“In Darfur, women are very frightened to speak of sexual violence, and the health workers who care for them do it in the greatest secrecy,” for fear of reprisals, she notes.


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