World leaders met at a summit in June 2014 in London to tackle the issue of sexual violence in conflict around the world. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), sexual violence and rape are weapons used systematically by all sides in the war. Eastern DRC is often called ‘the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman’ and DRC is known as ‘the rape capital of the world’. The UN estimates that 200,000 women and girls have been the victims of rape or sexual violence in the DRC over the past 15 years.
Sara*, one of our beneficiaries, is among that shocking number. A businesswoman from the DRC, she is currently living in exile in the UK, separated from her husband and young family who remain in the country.
Sara wasn’t aware that she was defending human rights. She just did what she thought any human should do. She volunteered with an organisation run by women which assisted rape victims (including children) and women who were too poor to be able to feed their families. Sara was a successful businesswoman, running a food depot with several outlets around Kinshasa and divided her time between her business, family and her role at the women’s organisation.
As well as offering monetary support to the women’s group, Sara also looked after women who had suffered rape – including those who had been rejected by their husbands due to the rapes and who subsequently died as a result of contracting AIDS from their rapists. She also helped organise meetings and protest marches. The police were always present and on many occasions intervened as the numbers at the meetings were felt to be a threat to the governing powers.
Due to her humanitarian activities, Sara was arrested and detained four times. The fact that she was pregnant on one occasion and nursing her young baby on another did not save her from the violent beatings meted out to her and others by the prison officers. On the fourth and final time when she was held for six weeks, she was raped by several police guards. She finally managed to get out of prison when a colleague paid a bribe to secure her release and arranged for her to leave the country for her own safety.
Sara is now embarking on the huge challenge of trying to settle into her country of exile while living with the distress of not knowing how her young family are coping without her.
Sara is deeply aware that other friends and colleagues who remain in DRC are still facing the horrific violence and abuse that she tried so hard to counter. Added to that is an aching need to be reunited with her family again – she has five children, the youngest of whom is only four years old. Her circumstances and prospects have changed so dramatically, that it is hard for her to grasp that she must now seek to be supported, instead of being in a position to give support to others.
Like so many of our beneficiaries, Sara did not choose to be a refugee. We recently gave her a small grant of £350 to help pay for basic essentials while her claim for asylum is considered. She is still waiting for a decision from the Home Office and lives in daily fear of being returned to the DRC.
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* name changed to protect confidentiality