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Mothers in Congo get help in raising children of rape

Group homes and networks are helping mothers in Congo to counter harsh discrimination as well as their frequent reluctance to accept children of rape. Since fighting engulfed eastern Congo in the late 1990s, hundreds of thousands of women have been victims of sexual violence.

By Danielle ShapiroContributor / May 9, 2010

A WAY BACK: Women sat outside the Heal Africa Transit Center in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, last year. The center helps with victims of sexual violence to recover and reintegrate.

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Bukavu and Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

Chibalonza Pascaline refuses to tell her 4-year-old, Rolande Ansima, who her biological father was.

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"How can I tell the child her father is someone who did this to me?" says young Ms. Pascaline, through an interpreter, as she slowly rolls a sock down her left leg, revealing mangled scars and burns just below her knee.

Pascaline was held for eight months by the Interahamwe, a Hutu militia also known as the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR), which has waged a brutal war throughout Congo's eastern corner since fleeing across the border after Rwanda's 1994 genocide. She was beaten and raped daily. She tried to escape once but her captors caught her. They contemplated killing her, but instead tortured her. She was four months pregnant at the time.

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Four years and one surgery later, Pascaline feels sad and angry, even with her daughter. Yet she knows Rolande is not to blame.

"The child comforts me, especially when I see her playing with other children but also playing with me and laughing and smiling," she says. "I hug my child with a lot of happiness and I really forget some of my problems."

Acceptance of children conceived so violently comes slowly for many women, and only with counseling and support, according to advocates and several mothers. Intense social discrimination in Congo against rape victims and their children also makes bonding a challenge. But many women ultimately embrace their children, rejecting or abandoning them only rarely.

Still, stigma makes survival a constant struggle and most mothers hide their children's origins.

"We don't dare tell these children who their biological fathers are," said Jocelyn Nabintu, who was raped and has a 16-month-old son, Imani Borauzima. "If the child learns about his origins, it can traumatize the child," even leading to suicide.

Ms. Nabintu lives in a group home with Pascaline and 42 others – 35 women and nine children, including two daughters from her marriage. They are from Kaniola, in South Kivu Province. The FDLR killed her husband before abducting her, she says.

Rape becomes weapon in war

Since fighting engulfed the eastern Congo in the late 1990s, more than 5 million people have died and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped. Though statistics on children born from these rapes are virtually nonexistent, they are thought to number in the thousands. In Congo, abortion is illegal, and the country's many Christians do not support abortion.

"We didn't like to become pregnant by rape," said Emérance Nzigire, 16, whose daughter, Ansima, is now 4. "But committing abortion is another crime. So there would be two criminals: the rapist and us."

It was Emérance's mother, Nsimire Emelide, also a rape survivor, who started the group home for women from Kaniola. At Ntachinige, which means "I won't kill myself" in Mashi, the group meets every day to tell their stories. During the talks, Ms. Emelide says, she encourages the women to love their children. She stresses that they are innocent.

Another Ntachinige resident, Mapendo Furaha, 16, whose son Birindwa is 1, rejects the vilification rape victims and their children endure. "We don't know why we should be ashamed of what happened to us," she said. "Those who should be ashamed are the rapists."

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