From captive to budding entrepreneur with a boost from UNHCR

News Stories, 13 October 2011

© UNHCR/J.Katsurama.
Adult literacy classes like this one in Dungu help traumatized women work their way back into normal life in northeastern Congo.

DUNGU, Democratic Republic of the Congo, October 13 (UNHCR) -- Whenever Marie*, just 16, looks at her lively toddler, Honoré*, she has the most intimate reminder of the 25-year reign of terror inflicted by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army on innocent villagers in Uganda and neighbouring countries.

Marie is an escaped sex slave of the LRA, and her son, now about two years old, was born after she endured months of rapes by LRA soldiers. These days, though, she's not focused on the past, but is rebuilding her life and looking forward, thanks to her family and programmes funded by the UN refugee agency.

"The assistance I've received from UNHCR helped me overcome the trauma of my experiences," the young woman says. "Now I feel like I have returned to normal life."

Life was anything but normal after she and her classmates were rounded up by the LRA three years ago from their village in north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), near the border with South Sudan. The armed militiamen left older teenagers behind, and tied the children at the waist and marched them off. They were forced to carry food, clothing and furniture the LRA had looted from her village to the rebels' permanent base.

The LRA kept the children ensnared with what they said was magic oil smeared on their palms and foreheads and threats of death, underlined by the execution of one of Marie's friends after he tried to escape.

That unlucky boy was one of the estimated 30,000 people who died during the LRA terror that also displaced some 2 million people in northern Uganda alone. Today the LRA remains active in neighbouring DRC, South Sudan and Central African Republic.

For Marie, life ground down to days of forced labour in the field and nights of sexual slavery, all the while being forced to fake a cheerful demeanour. She gave birth at what she says was a secret camp set up especially for pregnant sex slaves. She recalls incredible pain without any medical care.

During her pregnancy, the Ugandan military had stepped up pressure on the LRA and in June 2010, Marie managed to escape during a battle. Ugandan soldiers took her and her baby boy back to Dungu, the capital of Marie's district. To her relief, her family welcomed her back and gave her a home of her own on their land.

"I was overcome by a feeling of joy to be reunited with my family again after such a long time," she recalls.

Her first challenge was to begin healing. Marie enrolled in a psycho-social programme run by UNHCR and its partners to help victims of sexual violence overcome their trauma and reintegrate into normal life.

"Continuing stigmatization of former victims of sexual violence remains a huge problem in eastern Congo," says Jorge Holly, head of UNHCR's office in Orientale province. "That is why UNHCR is supporting these empowerment programmes to reduce the risks of stigmatization and social isolation of many of these survivors of sexual violence."

So far this year, UNHCR has provided psycho-social support for 348 women in Dungu, a part of the country where rape is endemic. Literacy classes are helping traumatized women reintegrate into society, while also providing a platform for education on violence against women.

Marie has resumed her interrupted education and hopes to take part soon in a UNHCR programme that teaches women baking, sewing, budgeting and personal finance so they can support themselves.

Because of all she's been through, Marie exudes the maturity of someone far older, and speaks about her experiences in calm, measured tones. Cuddling Honoré, whom she now regards as a gift from God, Marie says that once she completes the new training, "I hope to be able to start my own business selling vegetables, so I can support my child and pay for my education."

* Names changed for protection reasons

By Sebastian Frowein
In Dungu, Democratic Republic of the Congo




A Time Between: Moving on from Internal Displacement in Uganda

This document examines the situation of IDPs in Acholiland in northern Uganda, through the stories of individuals who have lived through conflict and displacement.

How UNHCR Helps Women

By ensuring participation in decision-making and strengthening their self-reliance.

UNHCR's Dialogues with Refugee Women

Progress report on implementation of recommendations.


Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.

Central African Republic: Urgent Appeal

You can help save the lives of thousands of refugees

Donate to this crisis

DR Congo Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Intense fighting has forced more than 64,000 Congolese to flee the country in recent months.

Donate to this crisis

South Sudan Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Donate now and help to provide emergency aid to tens of thousands of people fleeing South Sudan to escape violence.

Donate to this crisis

Livelihoods and Self-Reliance

We help refugees, refugee returnees and internally displaced people tap their potential and build a platform for a better future.

Sexual and Gender-based Violence against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons - Guidelines for Prevention and Response

Guidelines offering practical advice on how to design strategies and carry out activities aimed at preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence.

Guidelines for Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings

Published by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), September 2005


Education is vital in restoring hope and dignity to young people driven from their homes.

DAFI Scholarships

The German-funded Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative provides scholarships for refugees to study in higher education institutes in many countries.

Related Internet Links

UNHCR is not responsible for the content and availability of external internet sites

Women in Exile

In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

Refugee Women

Women and girls make up about 50 percent of the world's refugee population, and they are clearly the most vulnerable. At the same time, it is the women who carry out the crucial tasks in refugee camps – caring for their children, participating in self-development projects, and keeping their uprooted families together.

To honour them and to draw attention to their plight, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to dedicate World Refugee Day on June 20, 2002, to women refugees.

The photographs in this gallery show some of the many roles uprooted women play around the world. They vividly portray a wide range of emotions, from the determination of Macedonian mothers taking their children home from Kosovo and the hope of Sierra Leonean girls in a Guinean camp, to the tears of joy from two reunited sisters. Most importantly, they bring to life the tremendous human dignity and courage of women refugees even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Refugee Women

Chad: Education in Exile

UNHCR joins forces with the Ministry of Education and NGO partners to improve education for Sudanese refugees in Chad.

The ongoing violence in Sudan's western Darfur region has uprooted two million Sudanese inside the country and driven some 230,000 more over the border into 12 refugee camps in eastern Chad.

Although enrolment in the camp schools in Chad is high, attendance is inconsistent. A shortage of qualified teachers and lack of school supplies and furniture make it difficult to keep schools running. In addition, many children are overwhelmed by household chores, while others leave school to work for local Chadian families. Girls' attendance is less regular, especially after marriage, which usually occurs by the age of 12 or 13. For boys and young men, attending school decreases the possibility of recruitment by various armed groups operating in the area.

UNHCR and its partners continue to provide training and salaries for teachers in all 12 refugee camps, ensuring a quality education for refugee children. NGO partners maintain schools and supply uniforms to needy students. And UNICEF is providing books, note pads and stationary. In August 2007 UNHCR, UNICEF and Chad's Ministry of Education joined forces to access and improve the state of education for Sudanese uprooted by conflict in Darfur.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Chad: Education in Exile

Joint Appeal: Help Needed for Central African RefugeesPlay video

Joint Appeal: Help Needed for Central African Refugees

The UN refugee agency and its partners appealed for more donor support to cope with the continuing outflow and deteriorating condition of refugees from the Central African Republic.
Lebanon: A Tradition Yields New OpportunitiesPlay video

Lebanon: A Tradition Yields New Opportunities

UNHCR and partners are training scores of Syrian and Lebanese women in traditional fabric printing – helping to sustain centuries-old techniques and provide livelihoods for refugees and host communities.
Lebanon: Fadia's StoryPlay video

Lebanon: Fadia's Story

A former nurse, Fadia found life as a refugee in Lebanon to be especially difficult without employment. She counts herself lucky to be living in a shelter paid for by aid agencies, but food and other necessities are harder to come by. Fadia's is one of 145,000 Syrian families in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq headed by women. Poverty, isolation and fear of exploitation are just some of the hardships they face.