Finding redemption in the world’s ‘rape capital’

Female members of a village committee in South Kivu dance around a women's center. Photo by Lynsey Addario

Female members of a village committee in South Kivu dance around a women’s center. Photo by Lynsey Addario

Photographer Lynsey Addario had visited eastern Congo several times to cover the conflicts and plight of the women who live there.

She always came back with the same story – they had been raped and beaten, and it was hard to see anything positive in their lives.

But she recently returned to tell another story, a story of redemption.

With the help of the International Rescue Committee, women in villages in South Kivu have moved on from their oppressive pasts to support each other and financially support themselves.

“As a woman, I loved seeing women taking control of their lives,” Addario said.

The women come from different villages in South Kivu that have seen relative stability in the past few years. The names of the villages have been omitted to protect the women.

The International Rescue Committee started microfinance programs to help the women bring in funds through group farming, sewing, soap-making, and other small businesses. They also started community education and literacy classes.

With their financial independence, the women have earned more respect.

“Before they started receiving the microfinance payments, they weren’t even able to speak up at village meetings,” Addario said. “Now, because they have a profession, they have a voice.”

U.N. Special Representative Margot Wallstrom called the eastern Congo the “rape capital of the world” in 2010 because of the prevalence of sexual violence in the country.

Addario covered the fighting in 2006 and 2007, and she conducted interviews in 2008 for a project about women who had been victims of violence.

This time around, she was pleasantly surprised by their determination to move on.

“A lot were focusing on their present lives, which I hadn’t seen before,” she said.

Addario, who has covered wars in Syria, Libya, Congo and Iraq, has been a victim of war violence as well.

In 2011, she was held captive for six days in Libya with three other journalists while covering the conflict for The New York Times.

All of them were physically abused, and Addario was sexually assaulted regularly over the six days. That, however, didn’t come to mind when she spoke with the Congolese women.

“I have been covering women in the DRC for seven years and have always found them incredibly resilient and tough, but I didn’t think of my own experiences when I was covering them,” she said.

Eastern Congo is still plagued with violence, particularly in North Kivu. A total of 967,000 people are displaced throughout North Kivu as a result of years of conflict, and sexual assault has been on the rise, according to the U.N.’s refugee wing.

There were 705 reported cases of sexual violence in the region since January, compared to 108 cases during the same period in 2012, the U.N. reported.

Addario also documented the daily misery.

“They’re not in position to take control of their lives and begin their transformation,” she said.

As a photojournalist who has been in war zones around the world, Addario felt she needed to tell the stories of the now strong, independent women in South Kivu.

“We look for stories of empowerment, of overcoming hardship … we look for some happy ending, and often we don’t find it, especially with war,” she said. “If we can find those pockets of success, it’s important to shed light on it.”

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