Tuesday, 16 August 2011
Panzi Hospital is a secluded haven for its patients... particularly women who have been survivors of sexual violence, the chosen 'weapon of war' in Congo. It is a world away from the dusty, shameful existence for so many traumatised mothers and wives, with its picturesque, well-tended gardens, its non-discriminatory acceptance of any patient, and its humble direction by humanitarian, gynaecologist Dr Denis Mukwege. Through this establishment in Bukavu, eastern Congo, rape victims finally have a glimmer of hope.
Rape is devastating anywhere. And it's not "normal" rape. In Congo, the shame brought upon a victim of these horrific and indescribable acts of sexual violence often excludes her from family, thus undermining whole communities. "Raping women is the cheapest, most effective way to instil fear in and humiliate a community. It doesn't even cost a bullet" (E. Ensler).
These sexual atrocities, needless to say, have horrific sequelae and injuries, such as fistulae and incontinence. Injuries that I witnessed in Ethiopia; but there (at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital), they were largely resultant from obstetric complications. This physical trauma and permanent urine leakage brings shame upon the wounded, suffering isolation and desertion by family. Their villages are often looted and burned to the ground in the same brutal attack.
Panzi Foundation DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) was created in 2000 upon discovering the sheer numbers of victims of sexual violence post-war. It is supported by branches in USA, Belgium, Sweden and Norway, and is the platform to launch several initiatives and projects aimed at supporting these victims, as well as coordinating outreach and public awareness. I had the incredible opportunity to sit down with 2 intelligent, articulate Congolese women, both passionate members of this Committee (a lawyer and a doctor), and learn about these Projects during my time at Panzi.
This Foundation is focused on considering the female patient's (and their family's) broader needs, in the context of their injuries and ongoing health care. The current initiatives run by Panzi Foundation include Dorcas House, City of Joy, a Legal Clinic, and a Research Centre for Education in Human Rights. They also run a Fistula Project and an HIV Program.
This is how it works:
After a woman is violently attacked and humiliated, she is injured and broken; often deserted by her family, friends and husband, and not realising that this is an illegal act, for which she deserves retribution. By some means, if she's heard of the hospital (or if she's discovered by roaming staff members), she makes her way there for treatment. Upon admission to hospital, she will be given new clothes and toiletries, will have a gynaecological exam (for forensic purposes) and assessment of her injuries, from whence a treatment plan (physical and psychological) is formulated.
Initially, while staying on the ward, she is treated surgically, hopefully repaired from incontinence and other horrific injuries. During her recovery time, she will receive counselling, psychological treatment, social work, alternate therapies (including craft, story-telling, song and dance), and occasionally, more intensive psychiatric treatment.
These hundreds of women form bonds through their similar experiences, often becoming lifetime friends, once they've understood that they aren't inferior members of society and are still able to socialise with others. The program runs excursions - to a restaurant in town, to the cement factory, to the airport... not only to give these women something else to occupy their minds, but to expand their horizons and education, to improve friendships, and to re-inforce their self-worth and confidence.
Once a survivor receives the treatment and therapy she needs and feels confident enough to return to her village, if it's still standing, she will go home, with subsequent follow-up visits carried out by Panzi Hospital staff, regardless of distance, terrain or nearby dangers.
When, however, one of these women is unable to move beyond the grief and psychological trauma, often they (understandably) refuse to return home. In those cases, they are accommodated at one of the two Dorcas Houses. As well as food and shelter, these residences provide education and tutoring, craft activities, crop plantations, micro-finance projects, and access to healthcare.
City of Joy is another sanctuary in Bukavu where rape survivors, after they've been treated surgically, can live for 6 months and be educated. This centre is mainly sponsored and run by the American movement, V-DAY (and Eve Ensler), and is largely coordinated on the ground by Congolese human rights activist, Christine Schuler-Deschryver. The inhabitants have regular de-traumatisation sessions and therapy - the "Congolese way".
Panzi Foundation also conducts an education centre for the women themselves, funding for the children to attend local schools, and a free Legal Clinic. The latter is designed to equip these women with legal understanding and education about their Human Rights, previously thinking that being raped was a way of life; their own fault. This facility works in collaboration with local authorities and police, funds any legal costs and assistance needed, organises court appearances and accommodation during trials, and provides focus groups around the region.
Projects are also underway - the Fistula Project and the HIV Project, both of which provide treatment, and similar resources and assistance. There are currently approximately 850 HIV-positive patients enrolled in the latter, including 110 children; 450 of which receive regular anti-retroviral therapy. The patients, 40% of whom are male, are involved in agriculture, crafts, schooling and education about HIV prevention.
Despite all of this seeming somewhat disconnected from my actual project, I wanted to share this with you. The worldwide negativity towards Congo can sometimes be overwhelming. Here, people from all over are diverting their time, effort and passions towards the rebuilding of Congolese survivors, specifically women.
The Mafunzo Project is designed to ultimately expand the number of trained doctors and nurses working in Congo. Thus, there is a very real need for this project to work side by side with Panzi Foundation - our mission being to serve an ignored, violated population, a people previously uncared for.
**I'm sorry for the detail above if it offended you. However, if you are interested, below is a challenging article with further details, and the links to Panzi Foundation USA and V-DAY: