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New life for women after violence

Women at Maison Dorcas learn skills such as basket making to build confidence as well as ability to earn an income.

March 4, 2019

By Mike Ziemerink

In the Book of Acts, Dorcas was a woman of great charity who helped widows and may have even been a widow herself. In those days, widows were often poor and isolated. When Dorcas died, she was so mourned by her beneficiaries that the Apostle Peter came to where her body was laid out for burial and raised her from the dead.

And so it is at the home named for her in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Maison Dorcas, that women recover and find new life after being traumatized by sexual or gender-based violence. In the DRC, women who are victims of violence rarely, if ever report these crimes because of fear of repercussions or because of the stigma and shame that come with being a victim. The perpetrators of violence rarely face consequences there. Instead the victims suffer in silence as they are shunned by their families and communities.

Maison Dorcas is part of the Panzi Foundation, established in 2008 by Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Denis Mukwege in South Kivu, where the rate of sexual and gender-based violence is the third highest among 25 provinces of the DRC.

Maison Dorcas was created after the startling realization that 40% to 60% of women treated at Panzi Hospital are unable to return to their homes after medical treatment. This may be because of the extent of their injuries, risk of ongoing violence or the deep stigma attached to victims of sexual and gender-based violence.

“For a woman victim of sexual assault and violence, the medical care is the first step in a long road to recovery,” Dr. Mukwege told PWRDF staff on a recent visit to the DRC. “We can, and should do better by accompanying her until she can stand on her own.”

Maison Dorcas acts as a transit and safety house for victims of violence and those needing extended medical care. Women at Maison Dorcas continue their healing journey along with other vulnerable women from their communities in a setting where they are safe and heard. They actively participate in their own decision-making, empowering them and building up their self-esteem.

Mwavita Malinga Cécile, 47, came to Maison Dorcas on the encouragement of a friend. She once ran a successful business and was able to care for her husband and family of seven children. But one night, all her property and money was stolen. The trauma of the robbery rocked her, and she began to find life very difficult. She isolated herself and did not have the courage to leave her house. She could not meet her children’s needs or even eat. The concerned friend had been trained in basketry at Maison Dorcas and convinced her to join the training session. Cecile was skeptical, but agreed to give it a try.

When she started the training activities, everything seemed to be difficult. But with other women who survived similar situations around her, she gradually realized that despite the difficult situation, she had to make an effort. While learning basketry and business skills, Cécile also had sessions with a psychologist and social worker. They helped her understand she was responsible for creating her own income-generating business. She began by selling soaps produced by the women of Maison Dorcas with her small capital of $3. A month later, she had saved $10 US dollars and decided to buy and market more baskets. She plans to diversify her business activities even further.

PWRDF supports Maison Dorcas in providing women with essential skills such as literacy, numeracy and small business training. The aim of this training is to empower victims of gender-based and sexual violence and to ensure that their livelihoods improve and they have the skills they need to re-integrate into their communities and their families.

Jeanne, 22, was sexually abused at age 14. After receiving medical and psychosocial care at Panzi Hospital, she arrived at Maison Dorcas for vocational training and to finish her schooling. A psychologist there helped her accept the child she bore from the rape. Today Jeanne works at the Primate Conservation and Rehabilitation Project as an animal supervisor. She works hard to provide for her son’s future.

“I have become again a human person. Dr. Mukwege has rehabilitated my life, my dignity. I find myself in a team of men and women and together we discuss and plan. My voice counts in the decision-making.”

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