KIRUMBA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Eyes on their instructor, 20 young women sit in a meeting room one recent morning learning the techniques of mushroom farming. They are shy, weary and sad.
Their sadness echoes the trauma of a former life. Their lessons in mushroom farming hold the promise of a new one.
The students belong to the Association of Victims of Wars for the Search for Peace and the Protection of the Environment and Sustainable Development in Congo, which helps young women in DRC rebuild their lives after rape.
Through mushroom farming and counseling, the group seeks to supply two of the women’s most urgent needs: income and healing.
Thousands of women like them are hidden casualties of ongoing conflicts throughout DRC, where armed groups have used rape to terrorize populations in a culture where sexual assault carries a profound stigma.
Dévotte Mawazo Kasimba, 35, arrived in Kirumba in 2015, after fleeing fighting between armed groups in Kimaka, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) southwest of Kirumba, where she says a militiaman raped and impregnated her.
After turning to prostitution to support her child, she found the organization.
Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC
The group “is very important to women like me,” she says. “It helps us to overcome our trauma and teaches us how to integrate into society and get ourselves empowered through mushroom farming.”
Lush, forested Lubero, where Kirumba is located, sits in the vast North Kivu province, which is nearly twice the size of Belgium.
Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization based in New York, reports that North Kivu and neighboring South Kivu were among the most violent regions in the world between 2017 and 2019, as armed groups killed about 1,900 people. They kidnapped more than 3,300.
At least 130 armed groups, including some from neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, are battling one another for numerous reasons, Human Rights Watch and other experts say. In recent years, those reasons included political power, and battles over land and other lucrative natural resources, such as diamonds and gold.
In the two provinces between 2017 and 2019, Human Rights Watch documented 24 incidents of mass rape, involving dozens of women.
Armed groups have often used sexual assault to control populations during DRC’s nearly 25 years of political violence, according to the organization. And the groups have spared no one: Fighters have raped girls as young as 2 and women as old as 80.
One especially violent area in North Kivu is Lubero, a territory dotted with hills and small, well-tended fields that has seen combat peak since 2015, when local militias joined with the Congolese army to oppose an armed group of Rwandans and allied fighters.
Lubero’s armed groups and members of the Congolese military have allegedly looted homes, killed civilians, left children orphaned and sexually assaulted an untold number of women and girls.
In 2018, one of Kirumba’s most influential citizens, Kasereka Kiragho Kalamo, decided to do something.
Tall, friendly and energetic, Kalamo, 56, is an affluent mushroom farmer who lost his own wife, he says, when a militiaman killed her in Kimaka two years ago. He volunteers at Kirumba’s Displaced Persons Office, which is how he met three young women who had all been raped.
They urged him to start a group for women like them, Kalamo says, and he liked the idea.
Now, he says, his organization officially serves 28 teenagers and young women who come from throughout the province, mostly from areas shattered by fighting.
Kalamo identifies them through the Displaced Persons Office. His group offers psychological support and teaches the farming of mushrooms, a common crop in DRC’s forested regions. It’s also a crop whose prices allow the women to earn a living.
Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC
Mushrooms are harvested 33 days after planting, Kalamo says, and a high-quality crop of 10 to 15 kilograms can garner 3,500 Congolese francs ($1.78) per kilogram.
The income goes to each member, who in turn tries to come up with other revenue-generating projects.
Kanyere Aline, 20, says she was raped three years ago during fighting in her hometown of Mbwavinywa, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) southwest of Kirumba. She had dropped out of school but dreamed of getting married and having children. After the sexual assault, which left her pregnant, those dreams died.
Now, she says, she has a new start.
“Mushroom farming provides me with an income to support my child,” says Kanyere, who joined the organization a year ago. She now earns, on average, about 30,000 francs ($15.30) a month.
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Weekly counseling sessions address the women’s mental and emotional trauma. Some faced stigma in their communities, as neighbors drove them away or pointed at them and said, “This is what was raped.” Their children also suffer, as people say, “He looks like his rapist father.”
Some women say they now fear all men. Others battle insomnia. And some can’t tell their stories without sobbing.
Kavira Kangitsi, 24, came to Kirumba after a rape four years ago in Kanune, 45 kilometers (28 miles) southwest of Kirumba. She was working in a field, she says, when militiamen sexually assaulted her.
“The weekly sessions provide me with the support I need to learn how to live in society,’’ Kangitsi says. “The psychological support I received has helped me to overcome my trauma.”
Kalamo hopes to expand the group and to add sewing and animal farming to the instruction. But he says he needs more funding.
Kasimba says the group transformed her life, and she wants it to do the same for others.
“Young women who have been raped need to understand,” she says, “that they are as equal as other women in the world.”
Merveille Kavira Luneghe is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kirumba, Democratic Republic of Congo. Merveille specializes in migration and human rights reporting.
Emeline Berg, GPJ, translated this article from French. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.