Misanet.com / IPS, 16 February - A new rehabilitation centre is offering medical and psychological assistance to girls and women who were sexually brutalised during the Republic of the Congo's savage civil wars. "This is an opportunity for these women to find a place to work out their pain," says Raymond Janssen, a UNICEF representative in the Congo.
Janssen thinks that as many as 40 percent of the Congo's population may suffer from trauma related to the horrors of war. Most of them, he believes, are women and girls.
Paid for in its entirety by a 91,000-dollar grant from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the centre provides every type of service necessary for female victims of violence to try to rebuild their lives. The centre's services revolve around three concerns: medical attention, psychological treatment, and financial independence.
Initially, the girls and women receive both psychological help and medical care. Later on, small loans are provided to help get them back on their feet financially and return to productive lives in society. There is a plan for other, similar centres to be established around the country, both in the capital and elsewhere. The women residents of the Brazzaville centre have taken to calling it "their home".
Micheline Ngoulou, the president of the Congolese Association Against Violence Toward Women and Children (ACOLYTE) and the centre's director, says that while it is the country's first refuge for girls and women who were abused during the war, it is also a refuge for women who are the victims of domestic violence.
- Domestic violence is just as painful and damaging to one's human dignity, she said. "Rape is a subject which has always been taboo in our society. Many women who are rape victims suffer both psychologically and physically because they are ashamed to talk about it," she pointed out. Ngoulou stated that at the centre, women could speak directly to specialists and were guaranteed complete confidentiality.
Pierre Ngoma, one of the centre's clinical psychologists, said that the goal of treatment was to reassure women and help them overcome their trauma and sense of guilt. "No woman can accept being raped, no matter what her psychological state, but especially in our own society where people are reticent to talk about anything concerning sex. The victim must get over her sense of being responsible for the horror she has experienced and the humiliation," he said.
The centre receives 50 women each week on average. Any necessary medical supplies are provided to the clients free of charge. The health care system's Social Service Action Centres (CAS) refer women to the medical and psychological services at the centre.
- Although treatment cannot magically take away the physical and psychological scars left by the country's recent events, the centre is nevertheless a brick with which these women can start the difficult task of rebuilding their lives, said Ngoma, the psychologist.
The programme has already shown signs of success. "Tongues are beginning to loosen. The victims are regaining their sense of trust and are rejoining the country's socio-economic life through some small-scale projects," Ngoulou says.
For instance, Claire (not her real name) is a 19-year-old girl who became pregnant after she was gang-raped by a group of soldiers. "At first, I didn't know what to do about this terrible burden I was carrying around. I was going out of my mind, because I did not want to carry this baby to term. I believed there was no way I could love this child," she confessed.
- Thanks to a programme of the International Rescue Committee, I was able to receive psycho-social help which allowed me to tolerate the shame I was feeling and accept the child as a gift from God, she said. "Today, the child and I are being taken care of at the centre. I continue to receive treatment. In the coming days, I might receive a grant that will help finance a small truck garden . . . Finally we can once again feel like full members of the human race and share our pain without shame," Claire added.
At a recent press conference, Rebecca Oba, director for human rights at the Congolese Ministry of Justice, urged women to press charges against men who have raped them. "Most women don't want to press charges because they don't understand how to go about it, they fear for their safety, or they are just too embarrassed," she said.
According to Oba, the War Acts Amnesty Law, promulgated in December 1999 by President Denis Sassou Nguesso, does not apply to rape and other acts of violence against women during civil war. "Rhe amnesty law provides no immunity when it comes to rape. Anyone who, for their own personal reasons, committed rape or other crimes during the war is not eligible for amnesty. They can be prosecuted," explained Oba, who is also a member of the Association of Women Jurists of the Congo.
- When a woman victim can identify her attacker, we can proceed with prosecution, she said, adding that the plaintiff must pay a fee of 35 dollars to open such a case.
According to the US humanitarian organisation International Rescue Committee (IRC), some 1,545 cases of rape were recorded in the Congo during the civil wars. More than 52 percent of the cases were against adolescent girls.
In addition, "more than 450 rape victims went to local church health clinics in 1999. Fifty percent of them turned out to be pregnant, and half of those pregnant had also contracted the HIV virus," noted the director general for population at the Congolese Health and Humanitarian Action Ministry, Edmond Malalou.
The most frequent perpetrators of gang rape were combat soldiers, both regular army and militiamen.
By Lyne Mikangou, IPS