The Union of Compassionate Hearts teaches female victims of sexual abuse in the DRC how to work in the construction industry. Picture: 123RF/GABRIELA BERTOLINI
The Union of Compassionate Hearts teaches female victims of sexual abuse in the DRC how to work in the construction industry. Picture: 123RF/GABRIELA BERTOLINI

Goma — Teenager Aline, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), was left destitute at only 15 after she was raped, left pregnant, then accused of bringing dishonour to her family and made to leave her home.

But just two years later, her life is back on track, thanks to a groundbreaking scheme to teach building skills to survivors of sexual violence in a region ravaged by years of ethnic conflict that have hit women particularly hard.

The scheme is the brainchild of Lauren Muntu Kintadi, who wanted to help single mothers and other women in need to find paid work, and realised there was a demand for building.

Aline joined the programme after finding help from an organisation on the outskirts of Goma, the capital of the DRC’s  restive North Kivu region, that supports rape victims and young mothers.

“This training is going to help me in the future, especially in looking after my baby,” said Aline, whose real name is being withheld. 

“My aim is to find a job after the training. I know this can help me and my baby,” she said as she worked on a project to decorate a private home in Goma, her young daughter playing a few metres away.

About a dozen women are being trained to lay bricks, landscape gardens and do basic home renovations in Goma.

The work is usually done by men, but demand for the women’s services is strong in the city, thanks in part to a social media push that Muntu Kintadi said had sparked people’s curiosity.

Many of the women are victims of sexual and domestic violence; others simply desperate for work in a country where employers often discriminate against women in general — and mothers in particular.

Cases of domestic violence rose dramatically following the lockdown imposed at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March, according to women’s rights activists.

Anny T Modi, who heads local charity Afia Mama, said incidents had increased by about 35% as men stayed home during the day.

“What they see in this initiative is the chance to re-integrate into society after being humiliated and rejected by their the community,” said Muntu Kintadi,  who set up the Union of Compassionate Hearts charity in 2018.

Fighting stereotypes

Sexual violence against women and girls in the DRC is widespread, according to the UN, which says more than half have suffered from domestic violence or marital rape.

Rape has also been widely documented as a weapon of war in the eastern DRC, which has been largely controlled by militia groups since the end of a 1998-2003 war in which foreign armies and rebels vied for control over mineral resources.

The Central African nation was ranked among the 10 most dangerous countries to be a woman by a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll in 2018.

Survivors are often put off reporting crimes because it is a complex process and because of the stigma attached, and human rights activists say justice is rare. In some cases hospitals refuse admittance without a police order, or demand money to carry out a rape examination, said Christelle Vuanga, president of the national human rights commission.

“The way victims [of sexual violence] are treated is confusing. There are no policies that support [them],” she said. “Women endure gender-based violence (GBV) on a daily basis. Social rules and norms make them a little weaker every day,” said Muntu Kintadi, who wants to develop more training for vulnerable girls and women.

Muntu Kintadi has agreed to work with the DRC’s National Institute for Professional Preparation, which provides technical and vocational training for adults, and is getting more and more offers of work.

“I’ve always had a weakness for the jobs that society considers to be only for men, but it was mainly a question of capitalising on an opportunity,” she said. “This gives us easy access to the jobs market and, above all, it helps us fight stereotypes and all kinds of discrimination against women, the kind that sees women as weak.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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