It's a Saturday afternoon in autumn, and I'm sitting in a coffeeshop, notebook open, with a latte for company. The rain has held off, and the sun is peeping through the cloudy sky, refracting off the high-rise windows and bouncing onto the asphalt. I can see the Sydney Harbour Bridge just ahead of me, stretching out behind buildings in the distance. I've been out for breakfast with ladies from church, then meandered through the shopping district and bought a pair of lacy tights. I walked for another hour, and found myself here, with a place and time to write.
But I am finding it difficult to escape into the world of a princess. Breakfast this morning included a speaker, the current CEO of CNEC Partners International. Until the breakfast fellowship was announced, I'd never heard of it. Kim Vanden Hagel spoke about what the CNEC (Christian Nationals’ Evangelism Council) and its initiative, HEAL Africa (Health, Education, Community Action and Leadership), are doing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to help women and girls whose lives have been destroyed by the recent conflicts in Africa.
Kim spoke about the devastating effects of war on the female population. One of the realities of war is violence, and in DR Congo, I'm told, women and girls are subjected to brutal rapes and beatings. It is hard to swallow, hard to imagine, hard to equate my world of coffee and a peaceful day to day existence with a world where gang rape is prevalent. Not only does it happen, but the victims are cast out at a time when they should be embraced. Those who are strong enough - or lucky enough to be found by local missionaries and aid workers -come to HEAL Africa for the help they desperately need. Many come for healing from physical harm, including surgery and pregnancy complications, such as fistulae.
HEAL Africa also believe that the devastating effects of gender based violence (GBV) can only be reversed when the culture of silence is broken. The culture of silence extends to all forms of GBV. It is not right, in our Western way of thinking, but the culture of silence is one reason the women choose not to seek treatment at the hospital. It would mean admitting to the rape, and essentially placing the blame on themselves and causing their own banishment from their homes and villages. Instead they suffer in silence, assuming they recover well enough on their own.
I have been holding back this post because I feel there is more to add, more to research, before I publish it... but I think I could go on and on and still not touch on everything. And so I will continue with my thoughts from the afternoon following Kim Vanden Hagel's talk, and place notes for further reading at the end of this post...
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HEAL Africa's Fistula Repair Program seeks to care for women who have been left in a painful and emotionally traumatised state. But they recognise that treating the fistula is not enough. The culture that allows these rapes to occur and reoccur without acknowledging that the women have been wronged, must be changed. The stigma of being a victim of rape must be cleared; it is not enough to heal the wounds and send a woman on her way. Those who are pregnant need care and a means to support themselves in the future. Those who are incontinent from fistulae (which is nearly all) require care, particularly if they are the unlucky ones who cannot be healed, even following multiple surgeries; some are consigned to hospital wards indefinitely. Those who receive training are encouraged to return to community life. Some are able to earn money while they pass the time in hospital by making handicrafts.
The women who can be healed are equipped with skills that they can take back to their villages, enabling them to live as a valued member of the community. Their return is seen as a powerful gesture, rather than a shameful one. But that doesn't mean it's easy. It is not only women who are recovering from GBV that receive training through CNEC - the education is available to any woman, which helps to blur the lines and remove the stigma that might otherwise come from accepting training from the organisation.
Along with the support of CNEC and its partners, HEAL Africa is dedicated to enabling locals, rather than sending expatriates to help. By donating your time or money, more girls can be reached, and more women can know that they are worth saving.
I've mentioned the possibility of another charity blogging event, but I've been waiting for something to come along and hold onto my heart. These girls need our help. If you would like to contribute, either by donation directly to HEAL Africa and CNEC or by participating in the blogoff, let me know in the comments or via email. This is a cause worth supporting.
To read more about GBV and the culture of silence surrounding sexuality and abuse, I recommend this newsletter. One statement that caught my eye reads, "GBV occurs everywhere, be it in the home, school, workplace or wider society. The major reason for its widespread nature is embedded in certain patriarchal values that regard women as mere sex objects to be conquered and satisfy the desire of men. Certain myths also see women as accomplices in the rape cases and men as having animalist desires which cannot be controlled. In the absence of limited institutional mechanisms to address GBV and a deliberate culture of silence around issues of sexuality and abuse, GBV will continue to thrive." (Exchange, Summer 2006)
The Real Sydney : A war where the weapon of choice is rape
To read the story of one woman who was helped by HEAL Africa, read the news story titled "International Women's Day - Not Joyful for Some" from 11/03/2010 on CNEC's News Page.
NGO News Africa - Rwanda : Gender Equality, Ending Widespread Violence Against Women