Therese* draws a small crowd of curious onlookers as she kneels before the rusty, broken-down engine of a truck parked near her house in the outskirts of Kananga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Kasai Central province.
Her neighbours listen in amazement as she carefully assesses the extent of the damage, explaining what repairs are needed.
While the 47-year-old may appear out of place in the traditionally male-dominated field of auto-mechanics, it was in a mechanic’s garage that she first found hope again after surviving a brutal sexual assault, and its aftermath.
In 2017, violent clashes between armed militia and Congolese armed forces engulfed her hometown of Luebo, some 300 kilometres from Kananga.
“That day, there was a stampede. There were gunshots everywhere and we started running away in panic,” she recalls.
A group of armed men killed her husband in front of her before setting her house ablaze. Therese managed to escape into the forest with her 10 children.
“What [the armed men] did to me destroyed me completely.”
But her nightmare was just beginning. In the forest, she encountered four soldiers who raped her and her 22-year-old daughter at gun point, in front of her other children. For more than three weeks afterwards, the family hid in the bush to evade further attacks. During that time her two youngest children died of starvation.
They finally made it to safety in Kananga, but Therese’s struggles were far from over. The rape traumatised her and left her unable to have an income to support herself and her remaining children. She and her daughter were also confronted with the double stigma and discrimination that surrounds sexual violence in Kasai, isolating them from their host community.
“What [the armed men] did to me destroyed me completely,” she says. “I am afraid for my daughter. I wonder if she will ever get married and have children, because in our customs and traditions, women who have been abused are often rejected.”
Hope finally came in the form of a vocational training programme, sponsored by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, that gives survivors like Therese the tools to be financially independent and self-reliant.
The women are trained through the National Institute of Professional Training (INPP), in traditionally male-dominated sectors such as auto-mechanics, electronics and IT (information technology) so they can have the necessary skills to support their families, while also challenging gender stereotypes and opening the way for other women to earn a living in these areas.
UNHCR partner, Femmes Mains dans la Main pour le Development du Kasai (FMMDK), a local, female-led NGO that is active in the protection and promotion of women’s rights in Kasai, helps identify the women.
“These are such important projects because they offer survivors a chance to rebuild their lives.”
As well as receiving medical and psychosocial care, Therese learned auto-mechanics and how to drive, together with other survivors of sexual violence.
“These are such important projects because they offer survivors of sexual violence a chance to rebuild their lives and become part of the community again. These communities, in turn, benefit immensely from their new skillsets and expertise,” says Liz Ahua, UNHCR’s Representative in the DRC.
After almost eight months of training, Therese is now able to drive a car, and knows how to dismantle and repair engines, tires and brakes. After her graduation, she received her driving license, and will soon start a car mechanics business with some of the other women.
Since 2020, almost 400 survivors and people at risk of GBV in the Kasai and Kasai Central provinces have received assistance from UNHCR and its partners through vocational trainings in different sectors.
However, much remains to be done to combat sexual violence in a region where it remains part of a cycle of recurring conflict and insecurity and where social norms demand that female victims of violence must pay dowry fees before they can be readmitted into society. The practice often results in women being expelled from families unwilling to bear the costs of these dowries.
Over 800 GBV survivors were identified by UNHCR and partners in the Kasai region between January and July 2021 and provided with legal, medical and psychosocial care.
The agency also supports local organizations such as FMMDK that are engaging with communities to address the root causes of GBV and to break the vicious cycle of discrimination and poverty which puts survivors at risk of exploitation and further abuse. More funding is needed to implement projects like the one that provided Therese with a lifeline.
Today, Therese has renewed self-confidence and can look to the future with hope again as she waits to start working at a new garage which will be open in the coming months with support from UNHCR.
“I learned a profession which I really love. It will allow me to be independent and take care of my family,” she says.
*name changed for protection reasons