TOPICS > Health

‘The Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman’: Healing the Eastern Congo

March 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Democratic Republic of Congo is the worst place on earth to be a woman, according to the United Nations. Regional war and rape leave an estimated 1,000 or more women assaulted every day. One organization, HEAL Africa, helps women manage their traumatic injuries holistically. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Now a look at one organization’s holistic approach to healing the wounds of war.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A version of this segment aired on PBS’ “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.”

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The United Nations says the Democratic Republic of Congo is the worst place on earth to be a woman.

For two decades, regional militias have clashed over the minerals here. One of the weapons of war, rape, continues, despite peace agreements and elections. By one estimate, more than 1,000 women are assaulted every day. By another, the problem has hit some 12 percent of Congolese women.

One of the few places women can turn is HEAL Africa in the eastern city of Goma. Here, women work to shake off atrocities they have faced, to deal with their traumatic injuries. This woman wears a mask to conceal her maiming at the hands of militiamen who raided her home one night in 2010.

ANONCIATA, Congo (through translator): My older daughter escaped from them. They told me to go get her. And I said, she’s escaped from you. How could I ever catch her? Since I wouldn’t give them my daughter, they hit me in the head with a machete. And after I fell down, they used that same machete to cut off my lips.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: A volunteer health worker brought her here. HEAL Africa was started 12 years ago by British-born Lyn Lusi and her Congolese husband, Dr. Jo Lusi, devout Christians who’d served for years before that as medical missionaries.

LYN LUSI, co-founder, HEAL Africa: HEAL is an acronym. It stands for health, education, action in the community and leadership development, and all of those are components of a healthy society.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The facilities are spartan, but they offer the only such services to a population of eight million.

HEAL Africa survives on about $13 million a year in grants from abroad, public and private, providing everything from antiretroviral drugs to hundreds of children with HIV, to surgery to repair the bodies of traumatized women.

Dr. Jo Lusi is the only orthopedic surgeon in Eastern Congo, but he says this work is part of a larger idea.

DR. JO LUSI, co-founder, HEAL Africa: When you serve a human, I don’t see you here like a human. I see you like an image of God.

So to do that, you have to be holistic. You have to be total. You have to know a lot about the spirit, about the flesh, about the soul. Here, people are lacking everything. They don’t have food, absolute poverty. They are exploited. They are perishing because of the lack of knowledge. They are perishing because of the lack of justice. So me and my wife said, OK, how do you do a holistic system?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: HEAL Africa has trained 30 young Congolese doctors and many other health workers. But the Lusis say their holistic approach goes well beyond surgery to help rebuild women’s lives.

At this shelter, women spend months, even years recovering from rape injuries. They’re taught to sew, make baskets and raise small animals.

Basenya Bandora even allows herself to dream.

BASENYA BANDORA, Congo (through translator): I want to have a little shop, and I will make bread and I will sit there with my sewing machine, and people will bring me things to sew.  I will make baskets.  If I can have a little house, that would be very nice.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For now, for practical purposes, such dreams are pure fantasy. These women have lingering health problems. And militiamen continue to raid villages with impunity.

Anonciata frequently sees the men who maimed her, but reacted viscerally to a suggestion she might report them to the police.

ANONCIATA (through translator): I’m terrified. They would kill me. Only God can punish them for what they did.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But HEAL Africa has begun working to bring a more immediate justice for victims of rape.

In partnership with the American Bar Association, local lawyers work to apprehend suspects and put them through the legal system here. It is flawed and corrupt, but Lyn Lusi says only when Congolese begin to buy into it will it begin to work for them.

LYN LUSI: I would always encourage our legal aid to work 10 times more on the issue of bringing the community in line with the law, so that they appreciate what the law is trying to do, and that they agree with it, and that there’s social pressure, there’s a — there’s a desire within the community for zero tolerance of sexual violence, of any sort of violence.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: That’s what brought this 15-year-old girl and her father to the legal clinic to bring charges against a young man who raped her while she went to collect water for the family.

PATRICE KIHUJHO, parent of rape victim (through translator): I want him not only to be put in prison, but also to pay for the damages he caused.

Last year, I turned 75 years old. When we were growing up, we never saw this kind of behavior. When you liked a girl, we would get married. I am really astonished. I’m not sure what’s going on, how they can take little girls and assault them.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Lyn Lusi thinks its a consequence of fighting that has raged for two decades in Eastern Congo, destroying any sense of community.

LYN LUSI: You have seen your village destroyed. You’ve seen your people killed, and you’re a young man with no future. I mean, you have every reason to fight and every reason to go off and join the militias.

There are also those militias that will kidnap children and take them into their armies just to reinforce their ranks. Children are extremely good soldiers, in that they have no fear and they have no conscience.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Where does one begin to repair this?

The Lusis say they’ve worked to tap the enduring faith of most Congolese.

LYN LUSI: Here is a mandate to care that’s in the Muslim community, that’s in the Christian community, and it’s present in every single locality in Congo.

You could say that probably 95 percent of Congolese will go to a place of worship once a month, at least. So this is an amazing power within the community. And if we knew how to mobilize people correctly around their mandate to care, then you can make a big impact on a social problem.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: HEAL Africa has gathered religious leaders and other elders into so-called Nehemiah committees. These gatherings address sources of violence early on, mediating local business disputes or competing land claims before they escalate.

Lyn Lusi says it’s a start.

LYN LUSI: I have no illusions that we’re dealing with major issues that are pulling Congo apart.

There is so much evil and so much cruelty, so much selfishness, and it is like darkness. But if we can bring in some light, the darkness will not overcome the light, and that’s where faith is, if you believe that.

I don’t think HEAL Africa is going to empty the ocean, but we can take out a bucketful here and a bucketful there.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Her efforts received a hefty boost recently, when Lusi was awarded the 2011 Opus Prize, a $1 million award given by the Minnesota-based Opus Foundation to a faith-driven social entrepreneur.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fred’s reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota.