In the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, many families have been battered by war, rape, poverty and a lack of education. However, a humanitarian group says there’s a way to help families not only deal with the issues, but rise above them.
The eastern DRC has become synonymous with war and rape. In recent years, various rebel groups have attacked and looted villages, driving civilians into the bush to escape. Attempts by government forces and U.N. troops to defeat them have often made matters worse for civilians, as militias launch retaliatory strikes against villagers. But many aid groups working in the region have blamed all warring parties for attacks on civilians.
Weapon of war
Rape is a weapon of war in the Congo. It’s done to subdue, demoralize and humiliate populations. And it spreads HIV/AIDS. The attacks often occur in front of family members. Many women are so brutally assaulted they need surgery to repair the damage. But it doesn’t always work. And then there’s the psychological damage.
In the Goma area, the FXB Foundation has created a village of hope and healing, but not one that you would find on any map. FXB founder Albina du Boisrouvray says it’s a village nonetheless.
“It’s a network of 80 families in the same region. It’s not a real village. It’s a virtual village in a way because we don’t take people who are neighbors next door to each other,” she says
She says families must meet certain criteria.
“We choose in a community the 80 poorest, most destitute families, who have the reputation of being the most hardworking and honest ones in the community. And those who have the most children to raise,” she says.
She says some in the program have experienced unimaginable hardships.
“One woman comes to mind of those I have visited, who was a woman who has been raped six times, has a kid from one of those rapes, has a daughter who she’s taken in with her, who also has a kid from the rapes. That means that in the little hovel – nine people living in there,” she says.
When the woman first joined, du Boisrouvray says she was emaciated. She now weighs 48 kilos. Food is a big part of the program.
“We bring bags of rice, of beans, of flour, whatever. (The) usual food staples these people eat and enough quantity for the whole family. We also bring them immediately basic lessons of hygiene. Usually we try to build latrines, first thing,” she says.
A better life
In the first year of the FXB program, a family’s broken shelter is repaired as best as possible.
“The second year we’ll try to get that person with their savings to be able to get out of that hovel. Now with the savings that you have you should be trying to get a little piece of land. At least rent it if you can’t buy it. And then we will get other people, other families, other volunteers or our people to help you build your house, which will be a much more solid house,” she says.
How do they go about saving money? Du Boisrouvray says FXB helps families start small income generating activities. In rural areas, it may be growing food on small plots of land and selling it. Families may be given pigs or chickens. In more urban areas, families may receive sewing machines.
She says mental health is just as important as physical health.
‘We just give them psychosocial counseling by helping them regain their self assurance and their dignity as human beings. I think that’s a very important component,” he says.
Change comes quickly.
“And you see the difference,” she says, “When you see people in the first few months when they’ve been picked and taken in, they have their heads down. They look miserable. They’re ashamed. Even a few months later they’re standing up more erect.”
The women tell FXB they no longer worry about how they’re going to feed their families.
Women who’ve been raped are tested for HIV. If they test positive, they’re counseled on how to live with the disease.
Du Boisrouvray says the program succeeds because it wins the trust of the Congolese people.
“I work with only local people. I don’t have any expats (expatriates) coming in and saying, look, this is what we feel you should be doing. It’s their own peers. I mean all the social workers and the nurses. So these are local people who they know, local people who they trust,” she says.
The FXB virtual village also ensures children get into local schools, paying any fees if necessary. The foundation runs many programs in Africa and elsewhere around the world, many of them providing assistance to AIDS orphans and vulnerable children.