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HEAL Africa provides holistic care for the people of Democratic Republic of Congo
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Rape is a horrifying weapon

Rape is a horrifying weapon. It not only damages bodies but it tears apart lives and communities. HEAL Africa's program for gender-based violence, Heal My People, works to provide survivors of rape and gender-based violence in the Congo with comprehensive healing opportunities that help women find safety and start to heal their bodies, souls and minds.

Sexual violence is a symptom of a society in crisis. Women's bodies have been the battleground, as women traditionally hold a community together. HEAL Africa has seen an average of more than 400 women a month this year because of rape.

Soldiers from all armed groups have used rape as a weapon of war to intimidate men and women, to empty villages, and recruit children for their armies. Unoccupied villages can easily be looted, the land mined for minerals, and the harvests of food stolen with impunity. Women have been taken as sex slaves and porters. Destroying a woman's body breaks the fabric of family. Families make up villages. Once families collapse, the social fabric falls apart. This rampant abuse of human rights has largely gone unchallenged.

HEAL Africa's program of healing for survivors of rape and gender-based violence is comprehensive, starting with women in their villages who need healing, and guiding them through a series of programs that are designed to heal bodies, souls and minds, as well as offer new opportunities and education so women come back to their villages healed, with new skills going forward.

At the beginning of the process, a network of trained village women counselors in areas outside of Goma identify and assist women who have been raped and tortured by rogue militias, and women who suffer from obstetric fistulae due to complications in childbirth. They listen with compassion, and refer to appropriate treatment.

Many survivors require hospitalization at HEAL Africa's state of the art medical facility in Goma. The HEAL Africa hospital provides excellent medical care and the most effective treatment available in the region. It offers the most varied diagnostics and experienced surgeons, and a full accompaniment to the woman's psychosocial healing. Many of the women who arrive at HEAL Africa hospital in Goma require extensive treatments that may take months. While they are being treated at the hospital, they receive:

  • Quality medical treatment for fistulae, infections, other related issues.
  • A community for physical, psychosocial and spiritual healing.
  • The opportunity to learn new skills (literacy, sewing, crafts) so that women return with new knowledge and experience to their communities.
  • Physical therapy to speed healing.
  • Membership in a diverse community of healing for many illnesses. It is a place of safety for the various inhabitants of northeastern Congo to come for quality medical care. It might be called a laboratory of peace, as people often share beds with people from another tribe, another place. They eat together, live together in the hospital compound, worship together, play checkers, or "do" hair.
  • Care from a staff of 10 counselors in Goma who work in the hospital with women staying at the hospital and at the two sheltered housing communities nearby. Each counselor is assigned to a specific woman, helps orient her to available training, follows her during her stay, and will keep in touch as she returns home. There are chaplains who also get to know the women, listen to them, and pray with them.

Once she has completed her hospital treatment, the woman returns to her village and connects with the counselors who first referred her to Goma, and the Wamama Simameni house closest to her home. She continues to interact with the women she trusts and knows as she returns to her life in the village and uses her own experience to help and heal others. There are now over 300 trained counselors in villages in North Kivu and Maniema provinces and 28 Women Stand Together safe houses that provide security and a learning environment for all women in the community, as well as a safe place to stay for women traveling to and from medical care. Since the inception of Heal My People more than 15,000 women throughout North Kivu and Maniema Provinces have been identified and helped medically.

A fistula is a permanent tear in the vaginal and/or rectal wall and is a common injury sustained by women survivors of rape and gender based violence in the Congo. Another reason for fistula, the obstetric type, is lack of prenatal care, too-early childbearing, or inadequate care during childbirth. About two-thirds of the women who come for fistula repair fall into this category. Their fistulae could have been prevented. HEAL Africa's Safe Motherhood program works to increase birthing mothers' access to quality healthcare, dramatically reducing pregnancy, birth and neonatal medical problems, including obstetric fistulae. SAFE MOTHERHOOD

Fixing a fistula is only part of healing a woman's body, heart and spirit. Sending her home without addressing the situation that created the fistula does not resolve the problem or necessarily change her future. HEAL Africa's programs have grown from identifying women who need medical care to accompaniment of them through the process of healing and reintegration into their community of origin. HEAL Africa's Gender and Justice Program works at the community level to change the root causes of gender violence within Congolese society through programs designed to holistically heal.

Healing after rape requires addressing the social components that allow for rape to occur. HIV is a significant issue for rape survivors in Congo and HIV testing is an important part of a survivor's recovery. Many of the rapists carry HIV, and when they rape, they tell the woman that she, too, now has AIDS. In Congo that is basically a death sentence, as most people do not have access to anti-retroviral therapy. Testing is not available in most villages in Congo, so one of HEAL Africa's big challenges has been to get test kits, train nurses to use them properly, distribute them to rural clinics and inform women what they can do if they are raped.

Women who are injured in such a manner that they cannot return to their ways of making a living may qualify for a Fresh Start Kit, which provides training in small business, and the basic capital to get it going: it may be small animals that will be raised for food, fertilizer and income, it may be a sewing machine to start a small tailor shop, it may be a bale of used clothing to sell retail. The traditional life of a woman in northeastern Congo involves heavy lifting and usually agriculture. Often after the injuries sustained they are no longer able to do this. This is why it is so vital that they learn skills which will earn them income in a dignified way. They will be able to eat and live, and their families will respect them.

Rape survivors are too frequently thrown out of their families once the rape is known. This leaves them dislocated and alone, with few options apart from prostitution or selling themselves into an arranged marriage. The Women Stand Up Together program supports rape survivors by giving them the community and long-term support that they need to build a new life. They are able to participate as equals in a community that offers opportunity to all women. In short, they have a home that offers them education and resources where they are participants and actors, not victims.

Stories of Women Helped Though Heal My People

  • "Anna" walked 400 miles (700 km) to get to HEAL Africa. She had been living as a sex slave for years after being captured. She was shot in the arm, and escaped into the forest, walking and running for seven months, heading for HEAL Africa and Goma. Her arm is being treated before her fistula can be repaired.
  • "Katie" is eight, and is also waiting for fistula repair, but she can't have the surgery until the sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) she also has have been treated and cured. She has been part of the community for three months now, and she's already learned to read at HEAL Africa. It's the first school she has ever attended.
  • "Susanna" arrived in Goma for care from Maniema. After she was married she became pregnant and had traumatic labor for six days. The baby died, and she was left with an obstetric fistula. She was rejected by her husband and by her family. For twenty years she lived on the margin of society, unable to participate because of the smell associated with the incontinence from the fistula. She was repaired by surgery at HEAL Africa and was able to return home two weeks later, cured! What a transformation. Her life is dramatically changed.