To get to Katana Hospital we need to follow the main road north from Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo alongside Lake Kivu. In normal circumstances, for instance, a couple of miles across the border in neighbouring Rwanda, the journey would take half an hour. However, in the rainy season on mud-track roads in war-torn DR Congo it’s a long and bumpy ride.
If our journey is hazardous and lengthy we can only imagine the difficulties encountered by the women we have come to meet – victims of gang rape who have needed medical care including fistula operations. They have returned to Katana Hospital today to bear witness to the help they have received from Scottish charity SCIAF and its partners here. After decades of conflict in which sexual violence has been widely used as a weapon of war, here is not a good place to be a woman.
We assemble in a crowded office to meet the doctors who have been carrying out the work. The Principal of Katana, Dr Michael explains the nature of the task. Since 2010 women have presenting themselves at the hospital needing clinical procedures to alleviate the effects of the sexual violence they have experienced. Typically, women have been attacked by armed groups of men, raped and infected with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
However, this can be only the start of a painful journey. Many women become pregnant as a result, and often the children born out of these circumstances will be rejected by the family concerned. Perhaps worse than this is the physical, psychological and social ignominy inflicted through resulting fistula. This causes the victims to suffer incontinence (sometimes double incontinence), resulting in alienation from their own community.
At Katana Dr Michael and his team have been performing fistula surgery with women from South Kivu over the last ten years. His training was paid for by SCIAF. These operations have allowed the women concerned to begin their lives again and, in many cases, allowed them to reestablish relations within their families and villages. To hear their stories is moving and profound.
It’s Lorraine, my wife who, with our translators speaks to Simone. Her story is typical of so many of the women who come to Katana. Her husband and children had managed to flee when rebels came to her village but the gang caught up with her. Simone was beaten and raped. After this she stayed alone in the house and without anyone to help. She tried to run, but she had no energy and couldn’t speak to anyone including her own husband and family. Keeping this a secret was vital as she feared telling her husband would have made him reject her. She explains that this is a common reaction amongst other women in the neighbourhood. The first time she told the story was when she came first came to Katana Hospital for surgery.
After a long four years, hiding the effects of the rape from her husband and family she realised she suffered from fistula and needed treatment. During these ‘horrible’ four years she suffered double incontinence and her only explanation to her husband was that she had given birth to large babies. It’s impossible to imagine the humiliation, alienation and suffering Simone and the women who we meet at Katana had to endure. Equally it is also miraculous to them how much the operations carried out by the team here can change their lives. For many of them it is almost like being offered a new life all together.
Remarkably this is done with donations from people who support SCIAF back in Scotland. The medical team carrying out the procedures do so on very small budgets. Their salaries, though high in comparison to their patients, are minimal and resources are sparse. Dr Michael explains that operations have been carried out under the torches of mobile phones very often as power cuts are so frequent.
It’s not difficult to imagine Dr Michael and his colleagues could be attracted to more lucrative, less arduous posts even here in this forgotten outpost of DR Congo. Their work makes a huge difference though.
At the end of the conversation Lorraine asked Simone about life now. She explained, that not only had her own life been changed for the better but that the dialogue around women had become more open. Women were telling their own stories and sharing with others had meant that more and more women were coming forward for fistula operations at the hospital. This, clearly is, a huge piece of progress for women in South Kivu. For herself, Simone sums it up eloquently, ‘I felt happy to see that I have become, again, a woman.’
SCIAF, along with their local partners, is changing women’s lives for the better, providing medical care, trauma counselling, legal aid and help for women so they can become financially independent. But more help is needed.
DR Congo is a war-torn, forgotten part of the world which has suffered extreme violence and is still suffering from massive neglect from its own government. I’ll write more on this next time. It is missing out on the huge investment happening across the border in Rwanda. That investment has only been possible because of peace and stability (despite it being seen by Rwandan watchers as a fragile peace which may not last).
That Congolese women have borne the brunt of years of war is without question. It’s impossible to count the number of ways they’ve been scarred by years of turmoil. The physical and mental scars will be there for a long time still to come. Waiting for peace to break out is not an option, however. SCIAF want to help women regain control of their lives now.
You can help. All donations towards this year’s WEE BOX/ BIG CHANGE appeal given before 20thMay will be doubled by the UK government. That means every pound you give will go twice as far.
Our visit showed us how that money can make an enormous difference. Please give generously to this year’s appeal and help bring about change for good to those who are most in need.
Please visit www.sciaf.org.uk.