16 Days of Activism: Cultural group marks annual campaign with dance and drama

Dancers from nine ethnic groups have come together to present a ballet aimed at countering the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence in east Congo.

Assistant High Commissioner Janet Lim meets women in the vocational training centre in Uvira.  © UNHCR/S.Kpandji

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, November 29 (UNHCR) - In the heart of Africa, dancers from nine ethnic groups have come together to present a ballet aimed at countering the alarmingly high prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence in the eastern Congo.

The inter-cultural dance troupe gave a colourful and energetic performance last week in Goma, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's (DRC) North Kivu province, to mark the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign.

Conflict in the province has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes in recent years, while women and girls are particularly vulnerable to rape and other abuses under the current volatile conditions.

UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Operations Janet Lim, who attended the special ceremony in Goma, said the refugee agency was "deeply concerned" about the high incidence of sexual violence in the DRC, especially in the east. At least 12,000 women and girls are believed to have been raped so far this year in eastern DRC.

"UNHCR is pursuing its efforts to prevent sexual and gender-based violence and to bring the perpetrators to justice," Lim later told women at a vocational training centre in the town of Uvira in South Kivu province. "I hear you and I know that you are facing enormous problems. UNHCR will continue to do its best to support you," she added.

Lim was among the audience of UNHCR staff and their families, provincial and local authorities, donors, humanitarian aid workers and members of other UN agencies mesmerized and inspired by the North Kivu Intercultural Ballet Troupe.

The Goma-based group was founded in 2002 and is composed of more than 70 dancers and musicians - male and female - from nine ethnic groups in North Kivu, where ethnic differences have been behind much of the conflict.

"The ballet was created, in the context of the war, to bring together the different traditional groups in North Kivu province to perform as one," said the troupe's leader, Ibrahim Kubuya. "We use traditional dance and theatre to deliver key messages for peace and reconciliation."

To mark the 16 Days of Activism, they performed a sketch showing young males campaigning against sexual violence in North Kivu and a second piece on gender-based violence linked to a land dispute. The dancers, who have toured Rwanda, Uganda and South Korea in the past, plan to perform again in Goma to show their support for the annual international campaign.

"Through drama, awareness messages about the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence are quickly passed on to the audience while images make it easier to memorize a message," said Lorenza Trulli, UNHCR's sexual and gender-based violence coordinator in Goma. "This technique can be adapted to every audience - the elderly, adults and children."

The refugee agency is organizing activities to mark the 16 Days of Activism in towns across the country, including Bukavu and Uvira in South Kivu province, which Lim visited after her trip to Goma and UNHCR operations in North Kivu.

In Uvira, the Assistant High Commissioner toured a vocational training centre for women, many of whom were victims of sexual and gender-based violence. "We face violence in our daily lives," said one of those she met at the Women for Women International centre, adding that they were now more aware that their rights were being abused.

UNHCR works to reduce sexual and gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo through prevention activities, training, capacity building of women with specific needs, and awareness campaigns using drama, radio and mobile cinema. UNHCR also believes efforts to counter impunity are a crucial aspect in eradicating sexual violence in the region.

"Since the beginning of 2010, UNHCR and its implementing partners in South Kivu have provided 80 victims with access to justice through legal support and counselling," noted Mohamed Boukry, UNHCR's regional representative. He said UNHCR also supported the use of mobile courts.

Meanwhile, the refugee agency has reached out to more than 90,000 people in the Kivu provinces, including hundreds of soldiers, to educate them about the causes and consequences of sexual violence, highlighting the strong impact on individuals, families and communities.

By Celine Schmitt in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo