Reference : V-P-CD-E-00948
Date : 30/01/2009
Caption : Kibati camp. ICRC-supported Maison d'écoute or ''listening house". Mama Louise helps women who, like her, are victims of rape.
Photographer : HAVIV, Ron
Confidentiality level : public
Publication restrictions : reserved users only
Copyright : ICRC/VII
Description : Taming one's fear, through helping others

Mama Louise* was raped, together with her elderly mother and her three daughters. Ever since, she has devoted her time and energy to helping some of the countless Congolese women who have gone through the same ordeal.

During those days of February 2008, the armed men would come under the cover of dark, sowing death and destruction in the string of villages above Minova, which overlook the blue waters of Lake Kivu. The family of Mama Louise started sleeping in the bush. "But then, we began to carefully return home. This is how they found us." The voice is hardly above a whisper, and Mama Louise, her diminutive figure immobile on a chair, carefully avoids looking at anyone.

The men began by asking for money. "Give the money, otherwise we will burn you." Her husband tried to run away, and he was instantly shot dead. Mama Louise was raped, next to his body. Her three daughters were raped in the house, while the children were screaming. Even her 81-year old mother was not spared.

"In the morning, people came. They took us to this listening house in Minova, and from there we were brought to the hospital." For 21 days, she was in a coma, suspended between life and death. Life took over, but she had to live with the consequences. They all had.

"Two of my daughters became pregnant as a result, and had babies. The husband of my eldest one rejected her." So Mama Louise, 40, took in the baby, who now slumbers, comfortably tied to her back. In a society where the children of rape are often abandoned or even killed, because they are considered to "carry a curse", this was no mean feat.

But Mama Louise did not stop there. "Once I felt better, I decided I would help people who went through the same thing, as I was helped myself. As soon as I hear of a case, I go to the house, I explain to the woman what can be done for her, and I take her all the way to Minova. We come on market days, because this is when the mountain paths are safer."

The "listening house" where Mama Louise works - until recently without any salary - is one of many that were set up all over Eastern Congo in recent years. This was the response of civil society, mainly of women associations, to the "epidemic of rape" that has engulfed the region over the past 15 years, in the wake of its countless conflicts. The ICRC supports 33 listening houses, both in North and South Kivu.

In these modest structures, victims find counsellors who listen to them, bringing both material and psychological support. A small room offers beds to rest, and post rape kits are available on the spot, or at a nearby hospital. If administered within 72 hours, the drugs minimize the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases like HIV-AIDS.

Rebuilding the woman's self-esteem is a longer and much more arduous endeavour, which takes months at a minimum. Often, mediators have also to go and explain husbands and other members of the family that rejecting the woman is a senseless and cruel second punishment. When they do not succeed, the listening house offers a longer term shelter to the woman and, sometimes, to her offspring.

Today, Mama Louise is taking three recent victims to hospital. They wait shyly on the breathtakingly beautiful slopes while Mama Louise tells their stories. "Two of them were attacked last Saturday, the last one on Monday. She is 18, and was picking sweet potatoes in the field when two armed men raped her. She could not move afterwards, and her family found her at night, still lying there. They brought her to me, and I told her not to worry, I will take her to where she can get help."

The incidents are frequent, and never far from her own home, which lies in an isolated hamlet surrounded by fields of beans and sorghum. But Mama Louise never mentions the fear that must grip her at night, when the ghosts of her recent tragedy stalk the hills.

What makes her happy? Mama Louise slowly ponders the question. "In the beginning, I had such physical pain, vertigoes, I used to feel so weak. I thought I would never recover my health. But helping these other women - the more I do it, the stronger I feel. Since last May, I have assisted 67 women. And also, seeing that my daughters are doing better, this makes me happy."

Original material : digital
Resolution : 3744x5616
Orientation : portrait
Colour/B&W : colour