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13 October 2017

"Go to PAIF!" – Integrated support for women and girls in Eastern Congo

"Go to PAIF!" is often what women in Eastern Congo hear when they are in need of help because they have been raped, kidnapped by rebels, mistreated by their husbands or have an unwanted pregnancy. Since it was founded in 1993, the women’s rights organisation PAIF has built up a network of support in the provinces of North and South Kivu, and word has now got around. The team at PAIF provide psychosocial and legal counselling and they also ensure that survivors of sexualised violence receive appropriate medical care. PAIF also offers training courses to empower women to provide for themselves, reviving their hope and confidence.

It happened in broad daylight. Kahambu* and two friends leave their village to collect cassava leaves. When they reach their destination, they are attacked by rebels and kidnapped. One of the women is killed. Two months later, Kahambu realises she is pregnant. Even now, she does not want to speak about what happened to her during those two months.

There are only a few aid organisations working in the region

According to the United Nations, Eastern Congo is one of the most dangerous parts of the world for women. Of the many women raped in that region, one in four is under 18 and one in a hundred becomes pregnant. Most of the women are attacked while out in the fields or in their homes. The perpetrators are generally members of armed groups – the army, militias or rebels. But the number of civilian perpetrators is increasing. The victims are often abducted, sometimes they are raped repeatedly for weeks on end, and then they are abandoned in a severely injured state. Many survivors subsequently end up in extreme poverty because their families throw them out.

In spite of its wealth of resources, the DR Congo is one of the poorest countries in the world, as a consequence of decades of exploitation, corruption and war. More than 70% of the women and girls are illiterate, without any access to education. There are only a few aid organisations working in the region to alleviate its high levels of poverty, hunger, war and displacement, and the support they provide is far from being sufficient to reach all those affected in a region with many remote rural areas.

“That counselling really helped me get back on my feet”

One day, when the rebels are out of their camp, Kahambu manages to escape and find her way to the capital, Goma. She hopes to find refuge with her uncle, but he sends her away, insisting she cannot stay with him and should return to her parents. So Kahambu goes home. “But there they sent me away, too,” she says. The family’s reaction to her pregnancy is to tell her they do not want any fatherless children in their home. So she returns to Goma and tries her luck again at her uncle’s. But he is unforgiving and turns her out in the middle of the night.

Now Kahambu is so desperate she even considers taking her own life. But a friend offers to let her stay at her place. A few days later she meets a woman who took part in a PAIF training to become a hairdresser. “Go to PAIF,” she recommends. “They can help you.”

At PAIF Kahambu learns for the first time that there is counselling available. “So then I went to Mama Michaelle and told her about my situation.” The PAIF counsellor listens quietly and promises to speak to her colleagues and contact Kahambu afterwards. From this point on, the young survivor regularly meets a psychosocial counsellor. “That counselling really helped me get back on my feet,” she explains. Like many women in similar situations, she had considered aborting the pregnancy or giving away the baby. “Today I no longer think those thoughts. Now I am doing well,” she says.

Improve the life situation of women and girls in Eastern Congo

medica mondiale has been supporting PAIF since 2004. The non-governmental organisation was set up by local women’s rights activists in 1993 during the era of the dictator Mobutus. Their aim was to improve the life situation of women and girls in Eastern Congo who had suffered sexualised violence, while enhancing their self-help skills. The project team counsels survivors, accompanies them to the hospital, the police or in court, and provides training to enable them to earn their own income. PAIF also educates families and communities about violence against women, and it documents cases of violence so the perpetrators can be prosecuted. Some 850 women and girls benefit each year from support.

"PAIF has never let me down"

When Kahambu starts to have severe stomach pains even though the birth is not yet due, the counsellors take her to hospital. She has to stay there for one month, but PAIF pays the costs for medicine and treatment. “Before and after the birth they were there for me. They clothed me, took care of everything, including the things for the baby and food,” says Kahambu, full of gratitude. After the birth PAIF continues to assist her. “PAIF has never let me down.”

* Name changed

More on the work of medica mondiale and PAIF in DR Congo