The Power of Women – The Road from victim to survivor of Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Kuva Kongon demokraattisessa tasavallassa sijaitsevasta pakolaisleiristä.

Sexual violence is a global epidemic. The use of rape as a weapon of war is wreaking terrible havoc. Its victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo have a long way to go from being victims to survivors of sexual violence. Fida and its Congolese church partner CEPAC are working to make this process happen and break the cycle of violence.

This moment will not be forgotten, it will be written on the heart, it will pass through the thoughts for a long time, reminding us not only of injustices, but also of everyone’s opportunity to be part of a better tomorrow. I am on the shores of Lake Tanganika, in the courtyard of a small clinic, where women dressed in beautiful, colorful clothes sit under a canopy, and one by one they tell a story. About how ordinary everyday life was disrupted without warning. How their body remembers the transgression of the perpetrator, and the fragments of the heart remain looking for restoration. How the mind should be fixed on the present moment, on everyday chores so that it does not completely fall apart.

– Observations from a women’s support group meeting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Katja Köykkä, Special Adviser to Fida’s Country Programme

Rape has been used as a weapon of war throughout history. It is a cheap and dreadful means of destroying an individual. At the same time, it destroys the entire community and people. Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against sexual violence in 2018. Mukwege has stated that rape during conflicts is more than a humiliating sexual act. It denies the humanity of the victim and aims to destroy entire communities, causing fear and chaos.

“This is not just a humanitarian crisis. This is a real crisis of our humanity. It is our shared responsibility to help these survivors who have been denied the protection they need.”

– Denis Mukwege

Fida’s Congolese partner church (CEPAC) has operated in eastern Congo’s Tanganyika province through several inter-ethnic conflicts. They lead to repeated clashes and drive people away from their neighbourhoods. From time to time, people try to return to their homelands and farms. The journey is dangerous and many fall victim to abuse or robbery.

The security situation in Congo has been challenging for decades, and sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war on an overwhelming scale. Weak social structures in society expose people to violence, because the safety of women and children is not a priority. As a result of conflict, communities, families and normal safety nets have broken down. Shortcomings in healthcare, for example, also make it more difficult for the most vulnerable to access treatment and preventive support.

Congo is not alone in this situation, sexual violence is a global epidemic that affects a wide range of individuals and communities, it must be combated. The root causes of sexual violence apply everywhere, both in times of war and peace.

Victims’ journey towards recovery

In that group moment, comfort is present. We talk about how violence is not the fault of the victim. How to reduce the burden of guilt by talking and getting information, but also justice. These women receive help and support from each other, in these group moments, which are part of a psychosocial support program that is done in conjunction with treating physical symptoms and injuries.

– Observations from a women’s support group meeting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Katja Köykkä, Special Adviser to Fida’s Country Programme

Fida and CEPAC carry out preventive health work. This includes, for example, support groups for those who have suffered violence. The discussion groups also offer peer support for the management of everyday life, such as securing income and livelihoods and issues related to children and young people. The Panzi Hospital, started by world-renowned doctor Denis Mukwege, organises a four-step recovery model for victims of sexual violence. In addition to physical care, it focuses on psychosocial support, livelihood building and legal assistance.

Fida’s role in the cooperation is to counsel victims and refer them to services. The role also includes organising psychosocial support and supporting victims as they seek to return to normal everyday life. It is important to pool resources and look for others working on the same issue. Fida cooperates with other organisations, regional health centers and the Panzi Foundation. This enables diverse professional support for victims and their families. In addition to psychosocial support, strong advocacy work is needed to break the cycle of violence and begin recovery.

The goal is to turn pain into strength and agony into hope.

Recovery is a long process. An estimated 60% of victims of sexual violence in DR Congo are unable to return to their home village because either their community has abandoned them or the shame over what happened cause them to shut down. Then their whole future will have to be rebuilt. It is often NGOs that play an important role in this process. They can also provide support when pursuing legal action. Victims of violence may not pursue legal action against perpetrators because many have negative experiences with the authorities. Therefore, support is needed for this, because getting justice is one big step towards recovery.

In Fida’s programme, holistic care and support aims to help victims regain self-confidence and self-esteem. The goal is to turn pain into strength and agony into hope. During the recovery process, many women decide to fight sexual violence themselves and become true activists who not only protect their own rights, but also the rights of their children and communities.

On the way to becoming a survivor, the victim must go through a variety of emotions: a broken mind, a disgraced body, dashed hopes and dreams, losses and disappointments, abandonment, and shame. The basic pillars of life need to be reassembled. It is, above all, a process of healing that is unlikely to ever be completed. It continues throughout life.

Building sustainable change

Violence can normalise and become part of the culture if it is tolerated and not addressed through legal action. Violence lives best in an atmosphere of silence, where problems are silenced and victims are belittled. The struggle for gender equality, justice and a healthier world needs both men and women to participate. Women alone cannot solve the problem of violence, but it requires men to be part of the solution, families to raise their children in a culture that is non-violent and respects everyone.

Fida, in cooperation with its partner church, works in village communities and, for example, schools, offering training and discussion groups that seek everyday tools for a non-violent and safer life. The work includes a non-violent school environment, access to school for every child regardless of background, various peace groups, supporting a communal discussion culture, strengthening teachers’ competence, and, above all, challenging families and village communities to a safer everyday life that protects everyone. All work involves strong advocacy components to eliminate the root causes of problems. This aims to build sustainable change.


“Above all, I want to remind us all of our collective responsibility with regard to the horrors happening in Congo, not only as users of equipment that requires minerals extracted from Congo, but also as fellow human beings, as part of a family that bleeds and suffers in the same way all over the world.” – Denis Mukwege

Nobel Peace laureate Denis Mukwege’s biography, The Power of Women, was published on 29.8.2023. The book describes Mukwege’s life’s work in helping victims of sexual violence. It tells about the victims with deep appreciation and challenges the reader to reflect on our attitude to sexual violence, which is a global problem.


Read our book review here!

The book has been translated into Finnish by Tero Valkonen and published by Tammi.