16 Days of Activism: Couples in the Congo stand up to the stigma of rape

News Stories, 30 November 2011

© UNHCR/S.Schulman
A woman heads home with a bundle of firewood in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Violence against women is a very real threat in the area.

KAVUMU, Democratic Republic of the Congo, November 30 (UNHCR) Rape is widespread in eastern areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but for many of the female victims, what comes after is often worse than the act itself.

Aside from the trauma and other health problems, the victims are rejected by their husbands and families, seen as dangerously defiled and somehow responsible for what happened to them. Many of them are forcibly displaced in the volatile east, adding trauma on trauma, horror on horror.

"I could not live with someone who was raped by the Interahamwe," said 29-year-old Simon,* whose wife Angelique* was raped almost four years ago by a group of men from the mainly ethnic Hutu militia while returning home from a market in South Kivu province. He was more concerned about being infected with HIV, than worried for the welfare of his 35-year-old wife.

Jean-Paul,* aged 50, was more conflicted after his 49-year-old wife Sylvie* was raped while he was forced to watch. "I was stressed, traumatized. It was not like before. There was another smell in the house," he said. He decided to walk out of the family home, explaining to UNHCR that "I could not have sex with a woman who was raped." He found it very difficult to talk about the ordeal.

There are similar stories in countless villages across the east. In a small number of cases, however, couples are coming back together with the help of a project run by a local humanitarian aid group known by its French acronym of CAMPS (Psycho-Social and Medical Assistance Centre). The small agency is supported by UNHCR, which works to prevent sexual and gender-based violence in eastern Congo and to help the victims, whether or not they are forcibly displaced.

Simon and Angelique, and Jean-Paul and Sylvie are among those who have resumed life as husband and wife with the help of CAMPS. But reconciliation is a complex, difficult and slow process and virtually impossible if the woman tests positive for HIV or becomes pregnant.

Angelique was with 15 other women returning from selling their garden produce in a nearby town when they were attacked. She felt such shame after being raped that she spent a week roaming the forest before returning home.

"I did not tell my husband. I went to bed, I was sick, I did not speak and I did not eat," Angelique said, hot tears coursing down her face. Simon eventually found out, but instead of showing sympathy, the mother of four said, "He took all my stuff and threw me out of our house. He told me that I was sick, that I had HIV." She sought shelter with her family, but Angelique's father and children were as cold as her husband. "I wondered where I could find poison to kill myself," she revealed. Only her mother relented and offered her a place to stay.

This was a typical case for CAMPS, whose staff investigate rape cases and then reach out to men who have spurned their wives, trying to make them see their spouses as victims. And their work is paying off: Of 800 couples counselled since January this year, 400 were reconciled.

Simon had been separated from Angelique for about three years when he got the call, but he was not interested. "I was at home, I saw people coming. It was CAMPS. They wanted to talk to me about my wife and I told them that she should go and live with her man in the forest," he recalled.

But, despite his bitterness and harsh reaction, he did attend the CAMPS counselling sessions and began to change his mind after listening to their staff and talking to other husbands who had accepted the return of raped wives. He says now that he knows his wife was not guilty of anything. Angelique is still haunted by the attack, crying throughout the interview. "I am often sick. If a person runs behind me, I also start running."

Simon and Angelique have been back together for eight months and they say they live in harmony. But some things have changed. "I forbid her from selling goods at the market. She should stay home," Simon said. But Angelique's trips to the market were a vital income earner and the family are struggling to get by.

Jean-Paul's decision to take back his wife was also affected by the example of his peers. "There were other men who returned to their wives and it helped me," he said. But, as with Simon, the clincher was when he discovered that his wife had tested negative for HIV.

Bagalwa Dieudonné, a veteran counsellor for CAMPS, says it is rare for a couple to reconcile when the wife is living with HIV. He cited one case where love did seem to conquer all, but noted: "They don't have sex anymore." In the patriarchal society men still refuse to wear condoms. Half the battle is in changing attitudes.

By Céline Schmitt in Kavumu, Democratic Republic of the Congo




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.

Guidelines for Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings

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


Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

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

International Women's Day 2013

Gender equality remains a distant goal for many women and girls around the world, particularly those who are forcibly displaced or stateless. Multiple forms of discrimination hamper their enjoyment of basic rights: sexual and gender-based violence persists in brutal forms, girls and women struggle to access education and livelihoods opportunities, and women's voices are often powerless to influence decisions that affect their lives. Displaced women often end up alone, or as single parents, battling to make ends meet. Girls who become separated or lose their families during conflict are especially vulnerable to abuse.

On International Women's Day, UNHCR reaffirms its commitment to fight for women's empowerment and gender equality. In all regions of the world we are working to support refugee women's participation and leadership in camp committees and community structures, so they can assume greater control over their lives. We have also intensified our efforts to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence, with a focus on emergencies, including by improving access to justice for survivors. Significantly, we are increasingly working with men and boys, in addition to women and girls, to bring an end to dangerous cycles of violence and promote gender equality.

These photographs pay tribute to forcibly displaced women and girls around the world. They include images of women and girls from some of today's major displacement crises, including Syria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali and Sudan.

International Women's Day 2013

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

Tanzania: Fleeing Burundi, Refugees Seek SafetyPlay video

Tanzania: Fleeing Burundi, Refugees Seek Safety

He used to fix broken bicycles in Burundi, but as political troubles and killings mounted Nestor Kamza decided to flee. In search of safety he and his family walked non-stop for 24-hours until they reached Tanzania. His family is among more than 100,000 people who have fled from political violence in Burundi and arrived in the Nyarugusu camp which has almost tripled in size. To alleviate overcrowding in the camp, UNHCR and its partners have planned to open three new camps and have started moving tens of thousands of Burundian refugees to a new, less congested, home
Lake Chad: The New Normal Of ConflictPlay video

Lake Chad: The New Normal Of Conflict

The nations surrounding Lake Chad, one of Africa's largest freshwater lakes, are seeing an insurgency that began in Nigeria spread to their shores,. The total number of people in the region who have either fled across borders to escape violence, or been made homeless in their own countries, has now reached over 2.5 million people.
2015 World Day against Trafficking in Persons: ICAT Video StatementPlay video

2015 World Day against Trafficking in Persons: ICAT Video Statement

The second annual World Day against Trafficking in Persons is being marked on 30 July 2015. To mark this special day, the Principals of eight of the world's key organizations working to tackle this crime have come together to issue a special statement. Together, these eight heads of organizations are urging more to be done to help the millions of women, men and children who fall victim to one of today's most brutal crimes, and to join forces to improve trafficked persons' access to remedies that respond to their individual needs. This video includes statements from the following members of the Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons (ICAT): ILO, INTERPOL, IOM, OHCHR, UN Women, UNHCR, UNICRI and UNODC.