“Taking Mum’s hand, I whispered “Are we really safe, here?” ― Alwyn Evans, Walk in My Shoes
This blog is part of the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender Based Violence, which runs from November 25th through December 10th, 2014. The 16 Days of Activism are an international campaign that highlights violence against women as a human rights issues and calls for the elimination of all forms of violence against women. Throughout the 16 Days, Amplify will be featuring one blog each day from youth activists who sit on our International Youth Leadership Council and Girl Engagement Advisory Boards.
by Lizzy, member of the International Youth Leadership Council
Trigger warning for sexual assault and violence
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has endured nearly two decades of war and chronic instability, fueled in part by colonial history and decades of systematic extraction of natural resources. This instability has led to the exodus of about 450,000 refugees, who have moved into neighboring countries, including Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. Some people do not leave the country, but are forced to leave their homes: there are an estimated 2.6 million internally displaced people in DRC as of 2013. The United States is playing a major role in resettlement efforts: between 2014 and 2019, the US plans to resettle approximately 50,000 Congolese refugees from the DRC through the US Refugee Admissions Program. People who are forced to leave their homes and communities have often suffered from serious trauma and crimes against humanity. In a study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin, researchers identify the challenges of female Congolese refugees living in the US who are defined as ‘women-at-risk’.
Often, what defines a ‘women-at-risk’ are past horrific events. Many Congolese women faced terrible atrocities in the DRC that accelerated their decision to relocate to the US; many of them specifically related to sexual violence. Significant sexual trauma could come from sexual enslavement by armed groups, torture, and witnessing the death and torture of loved ones. These past events and social shame can make women feel isolated from their new community in the US, and can contribute to mental illness.
One DRC refugee in the US shared her story about when her family was attacked by a militant group. Ruth* believed that her family was targeted due to her activism in school around conflict related sexual violence. She described how the armed group came to her house, pushed in the door, and grabbed her. Her family was crying, and her parents begged them to let her stay. The armed men burned their house, shot, and killed her parents in front of Ruth and her siblings. They then took Ruth to their camp in the forest where she was repeatedly raped. “When they were raping me, I lost my mind,” Ruth said. The rebel group held Ruth captive for nearly a year before she managed to escape with her baby, who was conceived and born in captivity. Ruth was eventually resettled in the US with her sister and child.
Women like Ruth who survived the brutal violence of war and sexual violence have specific needs that should be addressed for a successful transition to life in the US. This is particularly challenging because in the Congolese Diaspora, rape stigma is high and women have their own internalization of shame associated with sexual violence. Support services need to include trauma-informed services, mental health screening, should be affordable or free, and linguistically appropriate. The University of Texas study had a list of recommendations in regards to the treatment of care.
Recommendations for service providers:
- Targeted training materials and mentorship opportunities for front-line service providers who work with incoming Congolese refugees.
- Strengthen or establish relationships and collaborative programming between resettlement agencies and sexual assault/domestic violence service providers to establish additional service options for Congolese women.
- Create guidelines for practitioners and service providers who work with Congolese individuals and families affected by sexual violence
Service providers are not the only ones who have a stake in the successful transition of these women. Young people can also use their voices to make change.
Recommendations for youth advocates:
- Educate yourself on women-at-risk, refuges in your home country and community, and existing programs. Are the programs doing enough?
- Volunteer at a resettlement office if there is one near you. Learn more here.
- Advocate to your local government about the importance of services provided for refugees.
Through educating the public and advocating refugees in the United States, we can help Congolese refugees, so they can have a peaceful transition into a happy and fulfilling life in the US.
“To all the survivors out there, I want them to know that we are stronger and more resilient than we ever knew. We survived, that should be enough but it isn’t. We must work hard to become whole again, to fill our soul with love and inspiration, to live the life that was intended for us before it was disrupted by war and horrors, and help rebuild a world that is better than the one we had just left.”
– Loung Ung
*names have been changed