Goma, 7 March 2013 – For women from eastern Congo, leaving the village or camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) to go harvest the fields or look for firewood frequently puts them at risk of sexual violence, including rape, by rebel groups, soldiers or unscrupulous civilians, as well as discrimination and social marginalisation daily.
In the first six months of 2012, nearly 2,500 women and girls registered as rape victims in one hospital run by HEAL Africa in Goma. The NGO estimates that as many as two thirds of women and girls in North Kivu province have experienced sexual violence.
On the African continent, women consist of half of the population, but represent 80 percent of the informal economy and produce more than 70 percent of the continent's food. According to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, protecting these women from violence and fostering opportunities for self-sufficiency is crucial for the security of the continent at large.
For the Jesuit Refugee Service, education is a fundamental instrument for protecting women from sexual violence and helping them to gain respect and consideration in their communities. Teaching women and girls to read and write, and to learn a trade with which they can earning a living, means offering them a protected environment in which to feel safe, share their problems, socialise together and acquire a new understanding of their role in society.
"The best immediate solution is to offer women opportunities which allow them to take up activities in and around their villages and IDP camps. We need to offer women opportunities from which they can then earn a living to feed their children and send them to school", explained Angélique Chayeka, JRS Masisi Informal Education Project Director.
A better future. In 2012, JRS involved more than 600 women and girls in their informal education activities in Masisi and Mweso, areas of North Kivu province characterised by a significant presence of armed groups and on-going forced displacement of the population.
These activities include vocational training such as bag and clothing production, hairstyling, and literacy courses. In addition, in JRS training centres, women participate in awareness raising exercises on sexual violence and, when necessary, receive support from JRS staff.
"We believe we're helping women to build a better future and gain respect and consideration of their community, including of the men. Women who know how to read, write and take care of their own families become examples for others. Education can help women deal with issues of sexual violence", added Chayeka.
Mariette Kahindo is a 45-year-old displaced woman who participated in JRS courses in Masisi. She fled her village in 2001 due to conflict, and is a widow and mother of four children.
Mariette specialised in producing bags that in Masisi are used, above all, by students for their pens and notebooks. She also learned how to read and write.
"I'm really concentrated on the work I do and this allows me to take care of my family on my own, without having to beg for help from others wandering around from one place to the next. With the money I earn I have rented a house, and am able to pay my children's school fees. Since I began working, my relationships with the community have improved", said Mariette.
Finding self-confidence. According to JRS staff in North Kivu, education gives hope back to women and girls who take courses, many of whom live in marginalised conditions in IDP camps. Moreover, after spending time together in class, girl students learn to open up to each other and understand each other's problems, creating a sense of reciprocal solidarity and strength to face daily challenges.
"Here I feel safe. Attending the bag production and literacy courses from 8am to 1pm I know I'm in a safe place. I learn a trade and this occupies my thoughts. With the other women and JRS staff, we speak about how to get on and overcome everyday problems in life", said Gentille Miramuhoro, 26-year-old mother of two.
For Francisca Sendegeya, Informal Education Project Director for JRS in Mweso, education encourages women to take their lives into their own hands.
"In this part of Congo, women face marginalisation and discrimination. But when they come into our centres we see that they gain a new sense of self-confidence. They feel involved in what they are learning and in the work they carry out. This gives a different meaning to their lives. For instance, they say they are ready to speak out against sexual violence and help their friends who may be victims".
Danilo Giannese, JRS Great Lakes Africa Advocacy and Communications Officer