“We Are Here Because We Are Strong” A story about resilience, a reminder of the terrible gender based violence, rape and sexual abuse of women in conflicts around the world.
In modern conflict, it is often women who carry the greatest burden. Wars no longer have front lines. Civilians are increasingly targeted. Rape and sexual violence continue to be used as weapons of war, and when forced to flee homes, it is women who take charge to hold families together and support children.
The viciousness against women was particularly brutal in the recent outbreak of violence that began in March 2017 in the Kasai region of Democratic Republic of the Congo. It triggered the internal displacement of some 1.4 million persons and the flight of over 34,000 refugees into Lunda Norte Province in northeast Angola. The newly arrived reported widespread violence, mass killings, mutilations, burning of property, destruction of villages, schools and churches and human rights abuses, as well as food shortage and the lack of access to basic services and goods.
Most specifically the refugees arriving in Angola spoke of government forces and militias deliberately targeting women in some of the worst gender-based violence the region has seen. As families fled across the border to neighboring Angola, the medical staff that received them were shocked by the stories and medical condition of many of the women and girls arriving.
Many of the Congolese refugees who arrived in Angola have been relocated to the UNHCR settlement of Lóvua. Currently there are over 9,000 Congolese refugees there, but the settlement has a capacity of 30,000. In Lóvua, 75% of the Congolese living there are women and children. With men often missing, dead or unable to work, it is the women who have to try and rebuild shattered lives and support families.
When I visited the settlement, I was immediately drawn to join three women who sat outside their tent: Rose (who would soon become Aunty Rose to me), her sister Mimi and Bernardette. We sat all day telling stories, laughing and sharing food.