Organizations with Pacific Northwest connections are assisting victims of sexual violence in the Congo by helping educate women on their rights and providing legal assistance.
GOMA, Congo — Sitting in a dark law office, 16-year-old Mwamini whispers, “I came here for a problem. I was raped by a boy.”
A tiny teenager with delicate features, Mwamini says she spent a week as the rapist’s captive, and he threatened to kill her if she escaped.
No longer a virgin, Mwamini feared that once free, her family would expect her to marry the boy. Mwamini was reluctant to pursue legal action; she preferred their families settle the issue.
Mwamini’s story reflects the complex challenges victims of sexual violence face in Eastern Congo: cultural expectations and negotiating a legal system plagued by nepotism, red tape and corruption.
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Although Seattle is a world away, organizations with Northwest connections are helping victims like Mwamini fight back.
They’re educating women on their rights, representing them in court, and mediating between victims and families who struggle to accept them.
Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI), whose U.S. arm was founded in Seattle, funds the all-women’s law firm where Mwamini sought counsel. The waiting room is often lined with women, each with a sad story to tell.
Others, like Act For Congo, based in Monroe, Snohomish County, serve as U.S.-based consultants to a Congolese nonprofit. Its leadership offers decades of development experience in the Congo and other African countries, as well as research, fundraising support and advice on capacity-building, monitoring and evaluation.
The effort to combat sexual violence in the Congo is hampered by a weak and ineffective legal system, as well as corrupt military and police forces that rarely protect women and are often involved in the sexual violence themselves, according to experts.
The international community — from The Hague down to nonprofits such as ECI and Act for Congo — has stepped in to pursue legal action.
In 2006, a study found that more than 400,000 women were raped in the Congo during the war there, many more woman than previously thought. The highest rates were in North Kivu, a province in Eastern Congo that is considered one of the epicenters of the conflict, according to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
“Many ladies, they were raped and they did not know their rights,” said Claudine Tsongo, founder of the legal aid group Dynamique des Femmes Juristes (DFJ).
Elections held in 2006 were widely regarded as a success. A new constitution included stricter laws against sexual violence. Amid sweeping changes, Tsongo and six law-school classmates from the University of Goma developed DFJ to empower survivors of sexual violence.
At first, they worked without pay. Over time, DFJ opened offices in several conflict-ridden areas. Although most of Tsongo’s peers have moved on, she continues to work in Goma, capital of the North Kivu province, an area awash with U.N. peacekeepers.
Not every client is a victim of sexual abuse. Aline, 15, went to DFJ with her newborn son after becoming pregnant by a neighborhood boy who said he loved her. Aline was seeking $2,000 in child support. The boy offered $280.
“It was very frightening,” DFJ lawyer Bernadette Mununu Ngituica said. “What can $280 do? Nothing.”
While dealing with her legal headache, Aline’s father passed away unexpectedly.
“I’m still waiting to know who is going to be responsible for the family,” Ngituica said.
Two years later, Aline is still waiting for child support. It’s no surprise that many single mothers avoid legal channels all together.
“The justice system is pretty much broken,” said Judy Anderson, executive director of the Monroe-based Act For Congo. “It’s there, but since the justices and judges don’t get paid on a regular basis, it’s much more prone to corruption and paying off.”
Young mothers face other challenges. Teenagers are routinely kicked out of school. Young women are often shunned by their families, communities and churches, said Serena Cosgrove, an assistant professor at Seattle University who researches the ways Goma’s teen mothers are abandoned.
“There’s no one who takes care of her, or reaches out to her, or tries to support her,” Cosgrove said. “So even if she continues to live with her family, no one interacts with her. No one interacts with her child.”
Women face enormous barriers fleeing the violence on their own: Many can’t go to school and get an education, lack marketable skills and have little ability to earn a living on their own.
Those conditions prompted Anderson, a longtime humanitarian aid worker who grew up in Congo, to identify ways for women to stand on their own.
Before starting Act For Congo, Anderson and her husband, Dick, a longtime aid worker from Seattle, led the U.S. arm of Heal Africa, a major teaching hospital in Goma that uses a holistic approach to community development and building peace.
Act for Congo supports an aid group that helps single mothers access information to protect their children and learn about human rights and state laws. The aid group is also providing job training in fields like hospitality, tailoring and cosmetology.
“These women are isolated,” Anderson said. What the aid group asked was, “ … How do we help them learn skills that will help them earn money in a dignified way? Otherwise, prostitution and begging are the only ways.”
As for Mwamini, the boy she accused of rape was acquitted.
“He did very bad things to me,” Mwamini said when DFJ met her two years ago. “In his mind, he didn’t want to get married to me. He only wanted to make sex with me.”
But under pressure from his family, Mwamini changed her story. She said she was not raped. Instead, the two were in love.
The last time DFJ heard from the family, Mwamini was a married new mother.