Mihigu is eighteen years old, and a single mother of a two-year-old boy in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The boy clings to her ankles and cries. The young mother lifts him up towards her breast. One day, when Mihigu was sixteen years old, she was praying in the back of the village church. When she bowed her head in thought, Mihigu heard someone enter the room and lock the door behind him.
This blog was written by Hannah Zevenbergen. As a former intern at Cordaid’s Security & Justice department, Hannah was active in the Women, Peace and Security Barometer approach.
Mihigu was violently raped. This horrific incident had left her broken and alone. The priest decided that it would be best if the issue was solved quietly and amicably. This injustice was unbearable to Mihigu, as the brutal violence had robbed her of her dignity and future. The village excommunicated her. No man would marry her.
Nema, also only eighteen years old, was gang-raped by a group of armed rebels in the forest where she was gathering firewood in broad daylight. Her little boy is a daily reminder of this terrible and life-changing incident. Her boyfriend at the time left her, as she had supposedly disgraced herself by letting herself being touched by another man.
Most women like Nema and Mihigu do not get any help at all, as they are often too frightened and ashamed to share their story.
These two women, viciously removed from society and the life they thought they would have, went looking for help at the Clinique Juridique, a legal clinic in a town in eastern Congo, supported by Cordaid. The clinic not only helped them strengthen their legal case, but also provided moral, medical and, most importantly, psychosocial support. The villager who raped Mihigu in the church was sent to prison for two years. Unfortunately, the rapists in the forest were never prosecuted.
Changing the status quo
Most women like Nema and Mihigu do not get any help at all, as they are often too frightened and ashamed to share their story. The legal clinic focuses on changing the status quo, and making rape a more discussable topic. Cordaid invests in changing the culture of impunity and works together with many civil society actors to organize awareness-raising workshops to discuss the impacts of rape and how to reintegrate victims back into society. Furthermore, Cordaid works together with youth centres to change young peoples’ perspectives on sexuality and violence.
Mihigu and Nema are very thankful for the help they received from the legal clinic, yet they do not wish their fate upon anyone else. Together with your help, we can work towards a future where women can pray and walk through the woods in peace and safety.
Cover image: A street in Bukavu, eastern DR Congo. The people in the picture are unrelated to the story. Image: Marten van der Beelen/Cordaid