By Nsimire Sara in Goma (AR No 240, 22-Dec-09)
Mwinja has known little but rejection in her seven years of life.
Her mother Julienne became pregnant after being raped by soldiers who held her captive in the bush for 14 days. She still struggles to accept her daughter, and often uses her as a scapegoat when things go wrong.
"I am unhappy because of this child," Julienne said. "I would like to give her [up for adoption] so I could forget the misfortune that came upon me."
And Mwinja's life is no better outside the home as she is often singled out by her classmates. "What sin have I committed, and for how long will I be an innocent victim?" she said.
Sexual violence is an epidemic in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, where armed groups continue to battle the army, with civilians caught in the middle. The children conceived as a result of rape are seen as a curse by their families and communities, and face a future filled with shame and rejection.
With rape recently spiraling in the east, Human Rights Watch, HRW, blames the Congolese army's campaign against Rwandan Hutu rebels, which has been supported by the United Nations.
HRW reports that more than 7,500 cases of sexual violence against women and girls were registered at health centres across North and South Kivu in the first nine months of 2009. That is nearly double 2008 levels but represents only a fraction of the total as most rapes go unreported.
HRW says the majority were gang-raped, some so violently they later died. Many were held as sex slaves by the army or the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, FDLR, for weeks or months. One of the youngest cases documented by HRW was an assault on a nine-year-old girl by FDLR soldiers. They raped her mother then inserted a stick into her vagina, causing her death. The girl was raped when she cried out.
Congolese women who have been sexually assaulted are often rejected by their husbands and families. If they are accepted back into the home, a child born of rape is rarely welcomed too.
A mother-of-four who became pregnant after being raped says her son was pushed away and humiliated by her husband. The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, was afraid to stand up for her child. He does not attend school and faces a bleak future.
Children like him often find themselves on the street where they join the groups of homeless children called "maibobo" and resort to begging or theft in order to survive.
One such child is Nyombé, nine, who says she has nowhere else to go. "I have no mother and no father. My mother vanished," she said.
The presence of these children causes tension in the community, and some are targeted by the police and security forces.
"For us, there's little difference between life and death," said one street child.
Local residents have little sympathy. "We will fight until the end so that these children leave this place and we can live in peace," said one. "This group without a future should not be a nuisance to everyone else."
In Goma's Mabanga neighbourhood, shopkeepers burned down a makeshift shelter in the corner of the market that had been occupied by a group of maibobo, including two young boys conceived when their mothers were raped.
Those women who become pregnant after being sexually abused can't rely on the state if they want a termination. Abortion is illegal in the DRC, even in cases of incest, and can only be performed to save the life of the woman.
Though the Congolese authorities and large sections of society do little to help street children, there are some that are trying to help.
After being rejected by her husband, Mwinja's mother Julienne found her way to the NGO Synergie, which helps care for victims of rape. Synergie is now looking after Mwinja and has given Julienne a small loan to help her start her own business.
The NGO's mandate is to support rape victims in various ways, including counselling and prenatal care. Synergie also covers the cost of schooling. For the women, training courses such as sewing, weaving and painting give them the skills that enable them to sustain themselves and their child.
"We are supporting women who have been victims of rape, for the well-being of their children," Synergies's Florence Masika said.
Nsimire Sara is an IWPR trainee in Goma.
This story is part of a series produced by journalists who attended IWPR Netherland's recent international journalism course in Goma.