FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News & Notes.
The eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo became a breeding ground for rape during the deadly conflicts that began more than a decade ago. Rape survivors carry such a stigma that they're often rejected by their own communities. In 2001, a militia snatched Honorata Kizende from her village and her family. She was held and used as a sex slave for more than a year. Then, she escaped. Despite the devastating experience, Kizende has rebuilt her life with help of the human rights group Women for Women International. She now works for the group as an organizer. She joined us with her translator to talk about the sexual violence in her country.
Ms. HONORATA KIZENDE (Program Trainer, Women for Women International): (Through translator) I thank you for this opportunity.
CHIDEYA: Now, in 2001, you had a family and a career as an educator. That was a couple of years before the official end to the second Congo war. What was your life like?
Ms. KIZENDE: (Through translator) I had a very good life, well-organized and happy with my family.
CHIDEYA: The militias came then. What was life like in the year that you spent in captivity with the militias?
Ms. KIZENDE: (Through translator) I was taken as a sexual slave. It was more than hell. It was not human life which I was living there. They could kill me. They would threaten me. If I would refuse, they could just kill me.
CHIDEYA: How did you escape?
Ms. KIZENDE: (Through translator) The Congolese government came to that area to attack these rebels, and it was at that moment our perpetrators were fighting, we managed to escape.
CHIDEYA: Did you have any women who were too afraid to escape?
Ms. KIZENDE: (Through translator) Nobody among us was fearing. The pain we had underwent was too heavy, and we were preferring to die far from that area, where we were in captivity.
CHIDEYA: Did any of these men ever explain why they felt the need to abuse you sexually?
Ms. KIZENDE: (Through translator) We were not talking with them. They have their own way of communicating with us, and it was beating us, raping us.
CHIDEYA: You escaped. You found your children. Did you find your husband?
Ms. KIZENDE: (Through translator) My husband remained in the villages where I was taken into captivity. But me, when I escape, I didn't go back to my village because of the shame. I decided to come to Bukavu town, and when I arrived in Bukavu town, there were also other people who escaped from a village, among which my three children. So I am victim of violence twice, when in 2004 I was also victim of rape in Bukavu, where I escape.
CHIDEYA: What did you have to say to your husband? Were you ever able to talk to him?
Ms. KIZENDE: (Through translator) Up to now, I never talk to my husband and we never met.
CHIDEYA: How can you survive, spiritually and emotionally, through all of this?
Ms. KIZENDE: (Through translator) I survive because of the fact that, as I didn't die in the bush following all what happened to me, I have the reason to live and not to just deny myself.
CHIDEYA: I understand that you lost the will to speak for some time. How did you start speaking again and when?
Ms. KIZENDE: (Through translator) Since my participation into the Women for Women International program, I start regaining the confidence to speak out.
CHIDEYA: Tell me about what it means to you to work for Women for Women. What is it that you do, and how does it make you feel?
Ms. KIZENDE: (Through translator) The program took care of me. They have assisted me. They have trained me to know my rights, my rights in being in good health, my right in exercising my politics. These all have helped me to stand and to be confident...
CHIDEYA: Do you think that the government or other groups are doing enough to change things?
Ms. KIZENDE: (Through translator) I don't want to go to talk about, but what I will like to talk more is the humanitarian aspect around all - what is happening to women. Following the fact that the country still - the eastern part's still insecure and in a war, there is this - many consequences in terms of - there are many displaced people. Following this instability, women are most vulnerable, and they are facing on the daily basis getting raped and infected by HIV/AIDS and all other transmitted diseases. So in this context, we found that women and the population does not have access to sanitations, access to water, and they don't have a shelter, so they are living in a critical situation and condition.
CHIDEYA: Have any of the men who raped you and assaulted you been brought to justice in the court system?
Ms. KIZENDE: (Through translator) No. And because first of all, I don't know them individually or their names, and I was raped by more than 20 men, and I was in constant shifting in the villages, in the places where I was captive. It means for maybe two months, I can be to an area and after that, we shift in the bush, going site to site with different rapists.
CHIDEYA: You're one of a growing number of Congolese activists against rape. But are there any men who do the work that you do, who try to teach other men how to treat women with respect and to not add to this system of assault?
Ms. KIZENDE: (Through translator) Yes. Through Women for Women program, we have a man's leadership training program, which aim to pass it on to them, so that they may be the advocates and also, so that they may be - they change the attitude towards the women who are sexually violated.
CHIDEYA: But when you meet men who have this history, even if they're engaged in the work of trying to help other people, do you trust them? Do you trust that they would never do this again?
Ms. KIZENDE: (Through translator) Yes, I can trust them, because all the men are not rapers. There are those who are really determined to help us in this process because they feel that inside of them, this is destroying the entire community. So for me, I can trust that there may be men who can change and be the advocates for women rights.
CHIDEYA: Honorata Kizende is a rape survivor who now works as an organizer for Women for Women International. She recently received an award for humanitarian work. Her translator, Christine Karumba, is director of the same organization in the Democratic Republic of Congo.