Rape as a Weapon of War in the Congo [Part 3 – The Healing & What You Can Do to Help]

Lumo_lumo_stares If you want an intimate glimpse into the lives of victimized women fighting to reclaim their lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo, start with Lumo – One Woman’s Struggle to Heal in a Country Beset by War.

This documentary details the story of then 20 year-old Lumo Sinai who, like tens or hundreds of thousands of others, was violently gang-raped and left for dead by militants in the DRC.

The Goma Film Project gives the following synopsis:

Lumo is a feature-length documentary about a young Congolese woman on an uncertain path to recovery at a unique hospital for rape survivors.

The agonies of war torn Africa are deeply etched in the bodies of women. In eastern Congo, vying militias, armies and bandits use rape as a weapon of terror.

Recently engaged to a young man from her village, 20 year-old Lumo Sinai couldn’t wait to have children and start a family. But when she crossed paths with marauding soldiers who brutally attacked her, she was left with a fistula — a condition that has rendered her incontinent and threatens her ability to give birth in the future. Rejected by her fiancé and cast aside by her family, Lumo found her way to the one place that may save her: a hospital for rape survivors set on the border with Rwanda.

Buoyed by the love of the hospital staff, and a formidable team of wise women known to all as “the Mamas,” Lumo and her friends keep the hope of one day resuming their former lives, thanks to an operation that can restore them fully to health. A feisty young woman with a red comb perpetually jutting from her hair, Lumo faces the challenge of recovery with remarkable courage and sass. As she and her friends recover from surgery, they pass the days by gossiping and sharing their dreams of one day finding love.

But when it looks like her operation may have failed, Lumo’s faith is thrown entirely into question.

On this uncertain road to recovery, Lumo shows that the solidarity of women can bind the most irreparable of wounds.

American filmmakers Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Nelson Walker III take a unique approach that grants them the unlikely trust and acceptance of these brutalized women. They encourage the women to pick up a camera and participate in the filming (not unlike Ann Jones providing women with a means of self-expression and independence through photography in Cote d’Ivoire).

The filmmakers held nightly screening sessions, which both amazed and inspired the community of healing women. They also gave the women freedom to film whenever they chose and ensured that whenever a woman preferred not to be filmed, anyone with a camera desisted immediately and without question.

The film is shot in an observational style with no additional narration; the women themselves tell the story.

The culmination of these choices produces a striking result. The women pay little attention to the camera and the viewer is left with the astonishing “fly on the wall” privilege of looking into these women’s lives: their horrific tales, their broken bodies, their fight to reclaim a piece of happiness, of purpose, their laughter, their jokes, their support, their jealousies, their triumphs, and their despair.

The film follows the women through their process of healing, both physically and psychologically, but it is careful not to paint a fairytale of recovery. When women heal from successful fistula surgeries, they leave the safety of the hospital and re-enter a climate rife with sexual violence and instability. Many times a woman’s rapists will still have control of her village when she returns. It is not uncommon for a woman to heal and return months later with further injuries.

Few hospitals exist to help these women, and those that do are underfunded, under supplied, and understaffed.

At the Panzi hospital in Bukavu, Dr. Denis Mukwege is the only physician in a facility of 300 beds, most of which are filled with women waiting surgery to repair traumatic fistulas. Ironically, the hospital was founded as an operating room and maternity ward to serve the many women in southern Bukavu who have no assess to obstetric care. It was soon apparent, however, that the greater need was care for the growing number of victims of sexual violence.

Eve Ensler, founder of v-day.org, wrote an extensive piece about her visit to DRC and Panzi, published in (of all places) Glamour Magazine. She begins the article with

I have just returned from hell. I am trying for the life of me to figure out how to communicate what I have seen and heard in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

According to Erika Beckman, project manager for PMU Interlife, in an email to Susannah at The Reverse Cowgirl

…we receive approx. 200 rape victims a month at the hospital. We have both in-patients (women with more severe wounds) who reside at the hospital, and out-patients (less severe wounds) that stay in our “transit homes” where they are taken care of in-between treatments at the hospital. All women that come here receive the treatment, operations and training for free. Their children they might have with them are also cared for, as well as accompanying relatives or neighbours.

Women stay here on average 30 days for treatment, many women need multiple operations to be rehabilitated, and many need to heal in between the operations too. During their stay here, the women are taught how to read and write, they are taught different handicrafts and how to be self-sustainable. They are also given legal counselling and guided by lawyers if they wish to press charges against their perpetrators. (Currently we have 14 cases pending, but sadly because of the weak judicial system in DR Congo, perpetrators are always let off the hook).

The best evidence of the importance we have on the raped women that we treat is that many have told me that they would not have survived if they did not come to Panzi. Many women are, as you can understand, suicidal after the rape, but here at Panzi, except for medical treatment, they are also given their value back by our excellent staff and fellow victims who support each other, sing together to relieve the pain, work together on handicrafts and laugh together. They are truly amazing at finding small things to be happy about in life and really encourage each other in this way. [Em.mine]

The Panzi hospital, in partnership with V-Day and Unicef, is raising funds for a City of Joy.

City of Joy will be a refuge for healed women, survivors of rape and torture who have been left without family and community. City of Joy will offer a safe haven, providing educational and income-generating opportunities, and support women in becoming the next leaders of the DRC.

Donate through v-day here.

Lumo was filmed in the HEAL Africa Hospital in Goma. HEAL Africa (Health, Education, Community Action, and Leadership Development) started as a part of Doctors on Call to Service (DOCS) and is now run by Dr Jo Lusi and his wife Lyn. They work to train Congolese medical staff, counselors and activists on dealing with issues like gender-based violence, and HIV/AIDS.

As seen in the film, they send one of the “Mamas” into the countryside with a truck, rounding up women with traumatic fistulas and transporting them to the hospital. Although women often have had no idea that help was available, they remain terrified and many need to be persuaded to make the journey to the hospital.

To help the women re-integrate into communities that had ostracized them, HEAL Africa sends the women home bearing valuable gifts such as seeds and a gardening hoe, or a pair of ducks or a goat. The women also return with new self-sustainment skills that increase their value to the village. Many become literate during their stay at the hospital.

Donate to HEAL Africa here, and they’ll tell you what each dollar amount will buy. For example, $20 buys a sewing kit for a woman who has learned tailoring skills, $50 pays for tuition and supplies to send one child to primary school for a year, $300 pays for a woman’s fistula surgery.

Donate. Write a letter to Congolese officials (v-day has a template). Link to a blog or article. TALK to people. Tell them what’s going on and what they can do.

Act now. It’s so easy for most of us. Just act.

See also Rape as a Weapon of War in the Congo: [Part 1 – History of the Conflict] & [Part 2 – The Savagery]


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