War has left a terrible legacy in The Democratic Republic of Congo; shocking levels of sexual and gender-based violence. A new initiative is attempting to undo this terrible legacy at the local level. Warning: this story discusses sexual violence.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) can be a dangerous place to live, especially if you are a woman. The country has been beset by conflict in the last twenty years. One of the terrible legacies of this conflict has been a huge amount of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV); a chilling 1.8 million women are estimated to have been raped in the DRC – a country with a population similar to the UK.

Bitter legacy

‘Violence came through the war,’ explains Mariam Gabus from Bale village, in Ituri Province, eastern DRC. ‘There were many militia, and they raped people in the village.’ But after the conflict, the violence continues in communities. Mariam is an active member of her local Mosque, leading the women’s group there. Recently she has become a community leader for a new Tearfund project in the area.

The initiative has been set in partnership with local partner organisation HEAL Africa. It aims to reduce violence against women in fifteen villages in Ituri Province by trying to change the underlying attitudes of both men and women towards gender inequality and SGBV. The people that Tearfund are focusing on to lead the initiative are the region’s faith leaders, ministers as well as Imams, along with women leaders such as Mariam.

Attitude (re)shapers

‘Faith leaders are key local opinion leaders, and they’ve got a unique mandate to speak to their communities on these sensitive issues’ explains Maggie Sandilands, who leads Tearfund’s response to SGBV in humanitarian contexts. ‘Even in the most remote villages, where there is little government or NGO presence, you will find a church or a mosque; in these communities where we work, 95% of people belong to a faith group.’

Clockwise: A member of the Libi group speaks up, the trainees together, Mariam and husband.

'Now I am helping, and my wife is very happy. Now we make decisions together.’

Pastor Dieudonné

Sadly, she admits, religion has so often been a part of the problem rather than the solution. ‘Faith teachings have too often been used to justify or condone gender inequality, which is a root cause of this violence within communities”.’ However she believes the faith groups have a unique potential to prevent SGBV, as well as care for survivors. ‘If the local church leader starts to teach the Bible verses that “God created men and women as equal in his image,” then you can start to challenge culture from within, to change attitudes in a whole village.’

Forty year old Josephine Ayerango is a midwife from Mbr’bu village, Ituri Province. Josephine has joined the local community action group set up by the project; ‘I want my community to change, to see no more cases of sexual violence here.’ She says she sees many examples of sexual violence in her job, and describes how the stigma associated with it meant that women were ignored and shunned, rather than given the help they so desperately needed.

Opening minds and hearts

‘At the start it was difficult to talk about these things, but now we are seeing some changes. Before, someone who was raped felt ashamed, like she has to hide. Since we are trained, we can tell people how to help someone who is raped. We help them to get to the health centre to be treated. Now we welcome them in our church, we even take them into our own family.’ In fact, Josephine has done just this, taking a 16 year-old survivor into her own home when her family rejected her.

It’s not just the women of Josephine’s village that have been transformed by the message of the project, which is funded by the UK Department for International Development under the ‘What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women Global Programme.’ ‘I have seen a change in myself,’ admits Samuel*, a member of the community action group in another village in Libi. ‘Before, I was beating my wife – I was very brutal. I didn’t really think of this as violence. But in the training, I realised this was a bad way to be. I have stopped beating, it is very calm now in my house.’

The change in behaviour has extended into other areas of everyday life; ‘Before the training, I thought that housework is only for the wife,’ says Dieudonné, a pastor at the local church in Ngiri. ‘But now I am helping, and my wife is very happy. Now we make decisions together.’

‘It is not only people in the community action group, some other men in the community are now doing these things,’ adds pastor Dieudonné. ‘For men to wash clothes, or carry firewood– that’s a big difference in our culture!’ 

‘My husband also did the training,’ adds Mariam. ‘He did help me before, but now since the training he is doing even more. Sometimes we start to quarrel, and now he says, no, let us not have verbal violence between us!’

Tearfund’s project, ‘Engaging with Faith Groups to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls in Conflict-affected Communities’ is part of the ‘What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls Global Programme’ and is funded by the UK Department for International Development.

*Samuel's name has been changed.

Pray for this work and the DRC:

  • Ask God that the groups in Ituri province will continue to transform the attitudes and behaviour of the entire communities.
  • Pray for courage among faith leaders to speak out and lead with compassion on these sensitive issues.
  • Pray that survivors of sexual violence will be able to access the care, support and services they need, without fear of stigma.