16 Days of Activism: a multiple rape victim faces uncertain future

Telling the Human Story, 10 December 2012

© UNHCR/F.Noy
Mathilde sits in her tent in Kigeme refugee camp with her three children.

KIGEME, Rwanda, December 10 (UNHCR) Amid all the statistics of massive population displacement in eastern Congo, the suffering of individuals especially women like multiple rape victim Mathilde tends to get glossed over. The current 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence (November 25-December 10) focuses our minds at UNHCR on the human rights abuses against forcibly displaced women in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Mathilde, whose real name cannot be given for protection reasons, is now living with her three children in the Kigeme refugee camp in Rwanda's Southern province. She was abandoned by her husband after they fled to Rwanda in May to escape the fighting in DRC's North Kivu province between government troops and the rebel M23 movement and not long after she was raped by militiamen.

It was not the first time the 24-year-old woman had been sexually violated in her home province, where rape has become a daily occurrence in some areas as well as a weapon of war. These attacks had affected her health and she was also unable to have normal sexual relations Mathilde thinks this is why her husband left. Rape is also regarded as a stigma in the region.

Mathilde feels isolated in the camp, where she is surrounded by people from a different ethnic group. She cannot speak the local language, Kinyarwanda, and she relies totally on UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations for general help, food, vital medical treatment and psychiatric counselling.

But at least she is now safer in Rwanda at a time when UNHCR continues to receive appalling reports linked to the latest fighting of sexual violence across the border, including the rape of 72 women in the South Kivu town of Minova. Mathilde recently talked to UNHCR's Senior Donor Relations Officer Céline Schmitt about her ordeal.

Mathilde's Story:

I fled from Bihambwe [in North Kivu] in May 2012. My mother was killed in 1993 because of her ethnicity. I was just a child and my father, who was from another ethnic group to my mother, sent me to stay with his friend in Goma [the capital of North Kivu province] and study.

When I was in 6th Grade, I returned to visit my father during the summer holiday. I was with two friends one day and we were walking in the fields when we saw armed men from one of the rebel groups. They captured some of the girls and began raping them. I tried to flee but they shot me in the legs, arms and stomach and I fell down. Two men came and raped me as I lay wounded.

I was treated at the hospital in Masisi town and eventually returned to Goma. I looked for a husband and ended up marrying a man who was an orphan. I did not tell him that I had been raped. My first child is four years old and the others are almost two and one.

My brothers were not happy that I married a man from a different ethnic group and said they would kill him. We fled to Kaniro [in North Kivu's Masisi territory] and felt safe there. But then one of my brothers showed up with friends in the Mai Mai militia. They tied my husband to a chair, gagged him and raped me in front of him and my children. They told my husband to return to Rwanda.

I was taken by the militiamen and they raped me every day for a week. Then I managed to escape and made my way to Bihambo, where I found my husband and asked him to pardon me for having been raped. He did.

Just after the fighting with the M23 started [in Masisi in April], we fled to Rwanda. I explained my problem to UNHCR staff in Nkamira transit camp. I was ashamed and I felt ill.

We were transported to Kigeme and I had terrible pains in my stomach. The doctors said I had an infection. It was very painful. I received drugs but I could not have sexual relations and my husband left. It's my first time in Rwanda and I cannot speak Kinyarwanda I can't cope, I can't work in the fields.

But I cannot go back to Congo with the kids. If I return they will be killed...

My children don't eat the cornflour that we receive. My oldest daughter, Patricia [aged two], has problems. She has a big belly, there's a problem with her eye... I don't have enough clothes for my children.

There are some psychologists in the camp who help me. UNHCR gave us a tent, sleeping mats, blankets and cooking pans, but it is not enough. I know that there is not much future for me, but it's different for my children. They are small.

When I wake up in the morning, I clean the house, I dress the young ones, I prepare the food and I wash the clothes. And the day finishes like that. I can't sleep because of my problems. I don't know if my husband will return. If he comes back, I will welcome him because he is my husband. My brother called him on his mobile phone after we got here and threatened to kill him. Perhaps that's why he fled.

By Céline Schmitt in Kigeme, Rwanda

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The suffering and strength of displaced Congolese women

During the ceaseless cycle of violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is the vulnerable who suffer the most, especially women and children. The issue of widespread sexual and gender-based violence is a major concern for UNHCR, but it never goes away. The refugee agency has received dozens of reports of rape and assault of women during the latest wave of fighting between government forces and rebel troops as well as militia groups in North and South Kivu provinces. It is an area where rape is used as a weapon of war.

The fear of sexual and physical violence forces thousands of women to seek refuge away from their homes or across the border in countries such as Rwanda and Uganda. Often their menfolk remain behind and women become the heads of household, looking after young children. They are the bedrock of society, yet they are often the first to suffer when instability comes to their home areas.

The following images were taken recently in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda by Frédèric Noy. They depict Congolese women who have fled their homes, leaving almost everything behind, and sought shelter in a place they hope will be better than where they came from. In many ways they have become inured to hardship, but so many of them continue to retain hope for themselves and their children. And that is an inspiration to those who help them.

The suffering and strength of displaced Congolese women

DR Congo Crisis: Urgent Appeal

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

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

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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

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

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