Gender-based violence survivors learn to rebuild engines as they rebuild lives – UNHCR

By Vittoria Moretti, in Kananga, Democratic Republic of the Congo  |  10 December 2021
  |  Español

Therese* draws a small crowd of curious onlookers as she kneels before the rusty, broken-down engine of a truck parked near her house in the outskirts of Kananga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Kasai Central province.

Her neighbours listen in amazement as she carefully assesses the extent of the damage, explaining what repairs are needed.

While the 47-year-old may appear out of place in the traditionally male-dominated field of auto-mechanics, it was in a mechanic’s garage that she first found hope again after surviving a brutal sexual assault, and its aftermath.

In 2017, violent clashes between armed militia and Congolese armed forces engulfed her hometown of Luebo, some 300 kilometres from Kananga. 

“That day, there was a stampede. There were gunshots everywhere and we started running away in panic,” she recalls.

A group of armed men killed her husband in front of her before setting her house ablaze. Therese managed to escape into the forest with her 10 children.

“What [the armed men] did to me destroyed me completely.”

But her nightmare was just beginning. In the forest, she encountered four soldiers who raped her and her 22-year-old daughter at gun point, in front of her other children. For more than three weeks afterwards, the family hid in the bush to evade further attacks. During that time her two youngest children died of starvation.

They finally made it to safety in Kananga, but Therese’s struggles were far from over. The rape traumatised her and left her unable to have an income to support herself and her remaining children. She and her daughter were also confronted with the double stigma and discrimination that surrounds sexual violence in Kasai, isolating them from their host community.

“What [the armed men] did to me destroyed me completely,” she says. “I am afraid for my daughter. I wonder if she will ever get married and have children, because in our customs and traditions, women who have been abused are often rejected.”

Hope finally came in the form of a vocational training programme, sponsored by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, that gives survivors like Therese the tools to be financially independent and self-reliant. 

The women are trained through the National Institute of Professional Training (INPP), in traditionally male-dominated sectors such as auto-mechanics, electronics and IT (information technology) so they can have the necessary skills to support their families, while also challenging gender stereotypes and opening the way for other women to earn a living in these areas.

UNHCR partner, Femmes Mains dans la Main pour le Development du Kasai (FMMDK), a local, female-led NGO that is active in the protection and promotion of women’s rights in Kasai, helps identify the women.

“These are such important projects because they offer survivors a chance to rebuild their lives.” 

As well as receiving medical and psychosocial care, Therese learned auto-mechanics and how to drive, together …….


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