NORTH KIVU, Democratic Republic of Congo – Uzamukunda Esperance was out working in the fields with her husband near the village of Kiwanja when three armed men approached. They were wearing military uniforms and carrying rifles. The men killed her husband in front of her, then they raped her. Unable to get to help alone, Esperance remained in the field for two days before another woman, Rachel, found her and took her to the Rutshuru hospital.
When Esperance returned home to Kiwanja, her community all but abandoned her, treating her as though she had been cursed by the assault. Survivors are often rejected by their families and communities, and prevented from remarrying if they have also lost their husbands. A year and a half later, Esperance says she still faces the stigma of having been raped.
Esperance’s story is far from rare in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), especially North Kivu, where incidences of rape are more prevalent than anywhere else in the country.
Kiwanja lies on the outskirts of Virunga National Park, at the epicenter of multiple rebel territories, making it a hotspot for kidnappings, rape and skirmishes between multiple armed groups.
Hortense Kalamata, a lawyer with the Dynamic Organization of Female Lawyers, helps women pursue legal action and receive counseling after an assault. She says that rape has become ingrained into society in North Kivu. “Since the influx of Rwandan refugees in 1994 … there was a repetition of wars that led to the advent of the FDLR [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda] rebels. Many of these armed groups in the region have used rape as a weapon of war,” she says.
The Dynamic Organization of Female Lawyers works to protect and support survivors, but Kalamata says many women do not seek help because rape is considered taboo, and to denounce their aggressors would mean making their assaults public knowledge.
Losing a husband in the DRC can be disastrous for families, who lose not just his part of the family income but also his responsibility as financial head of the household. With two children to provide for and unable to return to her previous work as a farm laborer, for fear of being raped again, Esperance needed a way to earn a living. Rachel, the woman who saved her, gave her the equivalent of $50 to start a business. Since then, Esperance has been manufacturing chikwangue – a type of local bread produced from cassava flour.
“I sell my product at the local market here in Kiwanja, and sometimes I have customers that make the journey from Goma to buy from me, which brings me money,” she says.
Esperance is one of several women in Kiwanja who have turned to running their own businesses in the wake of an assault, and the stigma that comes with it.
Not far from Esperance’s house is the residence of 61-year-old Mapendo Speciose. She and her husband were also attacked while in the fields by FDLR rebels. Her husband was taken hostage, and Speciose was raped. “It has been two-and-a-half years and I have not seen my husband since,” she says. “I think they have killed him already.”
“Since I was violated, people in the community have mistrust for me,” she says. “It is as if after being raped here, one becomes worthless.”
Every time they come to buy from me, they are forced to forget that I have been raped.
But Speciose says her new basket-weaving business is helping break that stigma. People who would have otherwise avoided her come to her home and interact with her so they can buy her baskets for the equivalent of a dollar each. “My business brings me closer to people who seemed to be suspicious of me,” she says. “Every time they come to buy from me, they are forced to forget that I have been raped.”
Kabuo Felicite, 31, was taken hostage by the FDLR and raped several times. Unable to return to her previous work, she now makes and sells charcoal to support her four children. The production of charcoal is a tedious task in which she gathers wood from trees outside of the village and chars the wood over slow, low-oxygen heat. The process is time-consuming, considering the financial return, but her initiative has already caught the attention of her peers, who she says treat her differently now.
“Despite the scorn of members in my community, my small business helps them to see that I am a strong and courageous woman. Instead of begging, I use my business to restore my lost dignity,” she says.
When asked what she hopes for the future, she says that because selling charcoal is not enough on its own to support her four children, she wants to begin a new business, like making donuts or growing beans.
For all three women, starting a business has helped them reintegrate into their communities following an assault, even when the income they generate is low. Despite their accomplishments, they still face one major obstacle: the Congolese government.
The General Directorate of Taxes and the department of the environment have been imposing new taxes on small businesses in recent months, even informal businesses like basket-weaving and bread-making. Esperance and Speciose say these new taxes cripple any profits they make.
Esperance explains, “Initially, I would [make a] profit of $12, but since the Congolese government has imposed taxes on even the small businesses, I must give at least $10 for the taxes.”
Sharing similar frustration with the recent changes, Speciose says the tax is the biggest obstacle to the evolution of her business – she has had to raise her prices in response, but many of her customers can’t afford it. “I cannot sell my products as I used to,” she says. “People do not come to buy as before, but I keep hope until a better tomorrow.”
Starting a business may have helped Esperance, Speciose and Felicite in their recovery from their assaults, but Kalamata says that ultimately it’s social norms in the DRC that must change, not survivors. She says that security must be restored to the region completely in order to prevent future assaults.
“It is important to also continue sensitization campaigns in conjunction with local media to stress the value of women and human dignity.”