Thérese Mema Mapenzi, who works with rape
victims in South Kivu of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC),
adds that in order for victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence to
move on, they must have someone to listen to them.
Listening is also important
to help devise solutions to deal with rape's consequences on communities as a
whole, explains the social assistant, who works directly with affected
populations for the Justice and Peace Commission in Bukavu.
"I give them neither
money nor food, but I listen to them and sympathise with them," says
Mapenzi. "What makes me proud is to see that soft words can help to cure
the trauma of victims."
In a conversation with IPS
U.N. correspondent Rousbeh Legatis, Mapenzi discusses how rape is used as a
tool of war to destroy people, families and communities. Excerpts of the
Could you explain the
destructive consequences of sexual violence on both individuals and
In DRC, rape has been and is
used as a weapon of war. Rebels know that in our culture, women are those who
protect the culture in their communities.
To destabilise the country
and help actors of violence reach their goals, they are destroying families and
thereby local communities, weakening social cohesion. They raped our sisters,
mums, killed our brothers before our very eyes, humiliating and threatening us.
This violence comes with an
atmosphere of silence on rape. It is not easy for a survivor of rape to say
that he or she has been raped, because in our communities people do not easily
speak about sex-related topics, so rape is treated as a taboo.
Many families were and are
separated as a result of these experiences; raped women find themselves
isolated, the harmony within families broken. Entire communities are weakened
and divided, leading to an atmosphere of fear where the rebels become more
If a victim does not speak,
the process of healing the trauma cannot proceed.
Often survivors of rape are
re-victimised at a community level. Can you explain how that happens?
These people suffer terrible
treatment from rebel groups. When they return to their communities, they are
Until 2010, many victims of
rape were not even considered in their communities and discriminated against by
their families and neighbours.
Men were often forced to
watch their wives being raped and threatened with being killed if they tried to
help. Afterwards, it is difficult for men to talk about this experience,
because they were supposed to protect the women, so they feel powerless and
It also happens that men who
were not with their wives when the rapes took place then consider them
collaborators with the rebels.
You work with 16 listening
centres (trauma centres) in different villages of South
Kivu. Why is listening so important?
Only by actively listening
to people's problems can one understand them or know what kind of assistance to
provide. That is why it is so crucial to listen.
By doing so, we contribute
to their healing by showing compassion and sympathy. Most of the time,
trauma-related secrets that we have to hold back destroy us from within without
our even knowing.
For example, many people,
especially women, here suffer from stomachaches, tension and headaches because
they do not know to whom they can reveal their problems and associated
Should victims be speaking
out as well?
Victims must talk about
their trauma in order to be healed.
In the healing process, one
of our goals is to enable traumatised victims to speak out about their
situation and where and why they have problems in their daily lives, so they
can feel relief. If he or she does not speak, the process of healing the trauma
What are you concretely
doing there to help and support women, children and men?
To find survivors of rape,
we enter communities to inform people about and make them more sensitive to the
physical and psychological consequences of rape. We do that to remind everybody
that sexual violence is a community problem.
We also ask them to not
stigmatise victims of rape and explain what help our listening centres provide,
so they also can tell others about our programmes.
How we then assist them
differs from person to person. Sometimes it requires legal assistance, medical
care, psychological or economical support.
We provide counselling by
showing that he or she is not responsible for the rape. If they have never been
to a hospital for medical care, we refer them to one.
We also do family mediation,
which aims to restore peace within families destroyed by rape. And if the
rapist is known or if a child is born from rape – often the most mistreated
among victims – we help bring them to justice.
What support does your work
need so that you can continue to help others?
The first thing I need is
security. Sometimes we help a survivor of rape and she reintegrates well. After
a while, however, the rebels come back to the village and rape her and others
This disappoints me so much
and makes me feel discouraged.
Another thing is the lack of
sufficient financial means. Sometimes we listen to survivors of rape who have
gone two days without eating, or to a refugee with children, a pregnant woman
or an orphan of three years.
Without the financial means
to help them, it is difficult to cure their trauma