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.

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.

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

"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."

It is in this environment that Emérance is raising Ansima, an energetic child who seems to be in a constant battle to contain her giggles. Her name means "God loves me" in Mashi. Both Emérance and her mother say Ansima is a blessing and a comfort given the murder of the rest of their family, including five other children and Emelide's husband.

Most organizations that work with children conceived through sexual violence don't do so exclusively. Alessandra Dentice, with the United Nations Children's Fund, says none of their programs target this group in part to avoid exposing the children. Other advocates reiterated this point.

Stigma of father's identity

In addition, identity in Congo usually comes from the father – a problem when he is the enemy.

"If these children are stigmatized, it is because people see the evil things their fathers do, armed people from Rwanda," argues Gilbert Bandibabone, a psychologist who works with rape survivors living at Maison Dorcas, a transit house associated with Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. But members of the FDLR are not the only targets of anger over rape. Francine Chance Mahoro was raped as she made her way to a neighbor's house in her village of Masisi. It was dark; she does not know who did it.

Her daughter, Joyce Kisegeti Pamela, is now 2-1/2 months old. At Heal Africa's transit house in Goma, Charlotte Riziki, the head counselor, says it took Francine weeks simply to name the girl. She continues to grapple with her new role as a mother.

"Being first raped and then pregnant ... she doubly loses her status," Ms. Riziki said. "She's not a girl, she's not a woman; she has no place."

Advocates acknowledge that some women never appear to overcome their pain. Maua Songolo, who was 14 when the Interahamwe raped her and beat her repeatedly, still does not accept her 4-year-old daughter.

Heal Africa has 28 safe houses in North Kivu and Maniema provinces, and in the past seven years has trained about 465 village women as counselors. At the houses, survivors and women from local communities can receive counseling, referrals, and vocational training.

Muliri Jeanne Kabekatyo, coordinator for Heal Africa's gender-based violence program in Maniema Province, says hospital staff members work with political, religious, and traditional community leaders – often men – to reverse the stigma women encounter. These men can, and often do, influence the population to welcome rape survivors home.

Ms. Kabekatyo says counselors urge women to ignore those who say children born of rape will become troublemakers like their fathers.

"The counselors continually tell that woman that if you surround your child with love, the child will be useful in society," she said in a recent telephone interview. "The child will understand, 'I was raised with love, I have a moral debt to share that with others, with society.' We want to make out of these children artisans of peace."

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