The girls had been arrested on a Saturday night. By the time I returned to the transit house the following Friday afternoon, four of the five had been returned to their families; of those four, three had already run away and were back living on the streets.
I was prepared to enroll the girls in school and then job training at Ushindi Center where the women members want to mentor young girls and help them rejoin society. However, in a country where few social programs (including NGOs) have funds to house these girls, the rationale is to return them to their families as quickly as possible, regardless that their families do not want them or are too poor to feed them. In this case, a long shot is better than no shot at all!
Bahati, the fifth girl who remained at the transit house, says she is 18 but is probably around 14 or 15. She is obviously pregnant, most likely in her third trimester. She says her parents live in Goma, and the agency is trying to “reinsert” her before the baby comes. She is willing to return home, but worries because she has no money for baby clothes, which places an additional burden on the family, now with two more mouths to feed instead of one.
My interpreter, Hortense, a very wise Congolese woman, says in addition to baby clothes, she will need some little money for the delivery, and a monthly stipend of $20 so she can do small business selling food, clothes, etc. Bahati says she can easily make a living selling bananas on the street; she just needs start-up money to fund the new business; like all these children, she is penniless and has no way of getting financed.
Another girl living in the transit house asked to speak with us: Adolphine, who has had much tragedy in her short life. Eighteen years old now, she has a 14-month old daughter named Ingrid, a child born of rape. Originally from Kinshasa, Adolphine came to Kanola 2 years ago to help an older sister and her husband, who had just had their first child, a baby boy. They lived together for several months until one night when five Interahamwe broke into their house demanding $350. The husband had only $50 to give them, so they beat him and raped her sister. He still had only $50 to give them, so they took the baby from Adolphine’s arms and tied her to a tree; then they locked the sister, her brother-in-law, and the baby in the house and set fire to it, burning them alive, forcing her to listen to their screams. She was gang raped later that night and taken into the bush, where she lived as a sex slave for eight months.
Adolphine escaped by threatening a guard with his knife; then she and two other girls walked for a week to Kabare where they found safety. She was admitted to Panzi Hospital and stayed many months after giving birth, because she was suicidal. She has lived at the transit house for seven months and is no longer severely depressed, although she does suffer from traumatic stress syndrome. She wants to go home to her parents in Kinshasa, but because airfare costs about $500 for her and the baby, she still lives in Bukavu.
These are the stories you hear told by women and girl survivors of sexual violence. Those of us fortunate enough to live in relative safety all our lives have difficulty grasping the desperation and despair this kind of trauma causes. When I listen to these women’s stories, I am deeply touched and want to help each one: return home, get medical help, send their children to school, fund a small business, provide trauma healing to ease the pain.
But of course, I cannot help each one. If any of you reading this blog feels moved to help Adolphine return home where she will have family love and support and begin healing, please email me and we can begin the process of getting her papers ready and buying the ticket home. We can’t help all the suffering people in the world, but in this case we can help one very deserving young woman rebuild her life, perhaps even find joy in living again.
P.S. I cannot post these girls' photos online for security reasons.
With love and gratitude,