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Living through Constant Terror: Women and Children in Eastern Congo

We interviewed Amanda, a volunteer at a religious action group started by a Congolese, that spent some time helping to provide services to women. "Women are the backbone of Congolese society", Amanda tells us, which is why she finds their lives and the violence they are subjected to appalling. In a land where the unemployment rate hovers around 50%, women do the majority of the work, but receive almost nothing with regard to ownership of land or control over their own lives. This lack of power extends into their relationships, where the typical Congolese woman is treated like a second class citizen by men who are frequently burdened by alcoholism and stretched by adulterous relationships. Amanda shared some stories with us.

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Congo for Christ


The Congo for Christ Center ('CCC') is an orphanage in everyway but name. The founder of the Center, a devote Congolese Christian, considers all the children there to be those of God and thereby brother and sisters not abandoned or orphaned, but found by their father.
 

Community Breakdown


Amanda tries to help us understand some of the macro socio-economic conditions that pervade in the Congo and contribute to these horrific circumstances. She explains that after the Rawandan genocide, many of the fleeing Tutsis saught refuge here. Then came the Hutus and the bloodshed that occured in Rawanda echoed here.  Joblessness is high and the only ones to be had are exploitative work such as mining or drilling. These minerals are often the source of conflict as well. "The communities have just been left in pieces. There's a breakdown within the family. There's a breakdown within the community. There's a breakdown in governments. With all this new Western structure, there's still all this tribal conflict and regional conflict."

 

"It's a cycle"


Amanda is one of a number of people we interviewed seeking insights into this world hidden from most of us in the developed world. Though more stark in imagry, many of the same themes emerged from her experience when compared to the experience of poor women in the urban communities within the US. She explains the "cycle" of how violence creates trauma and how that can play out in someone's life.

"We work with many kids who have whitnessed their parents being slaughtered. A lot of the women have been raped and they don't talk about it because it's taboo." Amanda explains that a raped woman is a disgraced woman and is considered damaged goods to the culture of men in the Congo. This kind of exposure to horrific examples of childhood trauma, though more extreme in nature, sounds all-too familiar to us as we've conducted our interviews.

Amanda lights up when comparing these childrens' lives before their lives at the Center to the safe place that they can call home that is the center. Amanda is especially impressed with the dedication of the volunteer 'mamas' at the center: 

"The center is for kids. There are a group of women there called 'mamas' that act as these childrens' mothers. They take care of the laundry, they cook, they are awesome. The center is connected to a church, so they're also part of the church ministry. They actually don't usually get paid. They come to the center all day, work for these kids, then go home to their families of six or seven kids."
 

The Women


Amanda explains how women - especially widows - who are victims of violence or rape are not treated the same as they are in the US when they experience such trauma. "Here, when (violence against a woman) happens, we encourage the victim, we support the victim, there are resources for victims. It's not a perfect system, but (in the Congo) these women aren't made to feel comfortable to talk about or seek support for. There is always a chance that your community or husband will shun you. In certain parts of North Eastern Congo, there are communities of women and their children that live in the forest due to being shunned out of their villages."

As studies show - however - though stark in comparison to an American cultural context, these community / cultural behaviors and sentiments echo those felt by the woman herself. In a way, guilt / shame and isolation are created from the inside out in an American context, whereas you are hit from both sides in many places within the Congo as a female victim.

Amanda explains that, at the Center, they encourage the younger women to be responsible and careful when choosing who to fraternise with as this could make the difference between having a good / happy life and a life filled with shame. Again, the cruciality of healthy relationships emerge in reflection.
 

A Life of Emergency


Empowering women is a challenge, but one worth taking on. As in a US urban context, the same problem themes facing women here are facing women there. A definite pattern we are seeing across the board in our interview is the importance of planning and the lack thereof in the lives of these families. Planning is something that these women don't have the luxury to do in their lives. Everything they are doing now (which takes up all their time) is dealing with the most emergent of emergencies. There is no peace of mind to consider options in the future or strategise about the next step. Deal now, sleep, repeat.

How can this be helped? We hope to dive deeper into this question and others as we continue.

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