Lane Hartill, CRS’ regional information officer for West Africa, recently visited eastern Congo, where he documented CRS’ response to the sexual violence that is an atrocity of the ongoing war.
The gynecologists at Panzi Hospital, a CRS partner, are some of the best in Congo at repairing reproductive systems that have been destroyed. But I wanted to find out how you fix a woman’s mind, how you heal her spirit.
So I turned to Cécile Mulolo Kamwanya, a psychologist at Panzi Hospital. She’s the head of the psychologist unit. It’s her and her team’s job to help heal women’s psyches, which are sometimes as damaged as their reproductive system.
Cécile told me a story that haunted me for days.
About a year ago, a little girl – I’ll call her Sylvie – was at home in Katama, a community very close to a forest where Hutu rebels, the same ones that committed the atrocities in Rwanda in 1994, are hiding.
The story unfurled like the others: the knock on the door; the demand for money; Sylvie’s father shot. In the confusion her mother fled. Sylvie was left in the house. The seven men took her to the forest, undressed her, and kicked her legs out from under her.
The last thing Sylvie remembered, Cécile said, before completely blacking out, was her legs being spread and men, as Sylvie put it, sleeping on her.
When she came to, she didn’t know what had happened or where she was. She tried to stand up but couldn’t. When she finally made it, she realized she was incontinent. She wandered for two days before an old man found her and led her by the hand back to her village.
She eventually made it to Panzi. But she was physically too small – only 10 years old – to be operated on. So for the next three or four years, she waits, no longer able to control the urine that seeps out of her.
“With a little girl like that, the first thing you must do is show affection,” says Cécile. “You must approach them even if they smell bad. If she came to your office, you’d open all the windows. The urine flows out of her. She smells very bad.
But Cécile loves her. They chat. Cécile puts her arm around Sylvie, as if she was her daughter. The whole time, Cécile is pretending she doesn’t smell anything. Cécile says a recent conversation went like this:
“I tell her to be patient, they’re going to take care of you, but you’re still too little. I ask her what she wants to do with her life.
‘I can’t get married. I’m going to be a nun.’
Why do you want to be a nun? Why don’t you want to marry?
‘Who’s going to want me? What man is going to love me?’
Be patient. And when they take care of you, you’ll be healed. You can then marry.
‘But I’m no longer a virgin. I’ve lost my virginity. Can someone who has lost her virginity, can a man love them?’
The value of a woman isn’t based on her virginity,” Cécile tells her.
Sylvie developed hatred toward men, says Cécile. But slowly she convinced her that all men aren’t bad.
“Only the ones that did this to you,” she says. “You’re papa was a good man. He loved your mama, didn’t he? He loved you. Was your papa bad?
No, Sylvie, said. Her papa wasn’t bad.
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