By Josh Harris, Communications Officer
Packed onto overflowing benches in a small church, high in the hills overlooking the city of Bukavu in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), rows of women, many with young children or babies in their laps, listened rapt to advice that they were hearing for the first time: “Violence perpetrated against you by any man, including your husband, is unacceptable, and should have consequences such as dismissal from employment or prison; women and girls deserve respect within families and have the same rights to inheritance and access to education; marriage under the age of 18 is illegal.”
The scene was similar to many of the sessions I have attended with International Medical Corps’ team of community mobilisers across South Kivu province, but this particular group was unique. Each of the women in the room was married to a member of the Bukavu police force. Well connected to the paved roads, railways and airports of neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi, Bukavu feels like many other chaotic and increasingly confident African cities, remarkable only for the stunning views of Lake Kivu on which the city sits.
Yet Bukavu is the capital of South Kivu province and, along with its neighbour North Kivu, has seen more than 15 years of war, inter-communal violence and a devastating epidemic of gender-based violence (GBV). A June 2011 American Journal of Public Health study found that 1,152 women are raped every day in DRC – a rate equal to 48 per hour. Even today, the fighting continues, with reports of more than two million people displaced in this region as of early 2012. Bringing down rates of GBV in such a context represents a massive challenge.
In 2006, the government of DRC passed a new sexual violence law, which strengthened punishments for crimes of rape and sexual violence, and outlawed marriage under the age of 18, among other measures. However, implementation and understanding of the law remain extremely limited, particularly in the eastern region of DRC. The session I attended was part of a collaboration between the Bukavu police department and International Medical Corps to increase awareness of the law, women’s rights and GBV issues. Not only does the law lack enforcement, but police officers themselves are frequently perpetrators of GBV.
Colonel Ekofo Ndejemba Donatien of the South Kivu police department explained to me that the housing circumstances for police officers in DRC, where entire families live inside designated camps, can cause problems:
“You may be used to managing your house as you wish, but in our camps it is different. We live all together– officers, lower ranks and all of our families– under the rules decided by our Commander. This causes a lot of conflict, misunderstanding, abuses of power and both superiority and inferiority complexes. Frankly, it’s an environment that predisposes men to commit violence of one type or another. Unfortunately, that is usually gender-based violence.”
He explained that the decision to extend the sessions to wives and families of his men was taken by a committee to prevent GBV that the police force had set up, with the promise to manage and implement the programme themselves. Colonel Donatien was keen to emphasise the commitment of everybody involved to bring about long-lasting and sustainable change, hence the idea of providing sensitisation sessions to both police and their wives:
“Education for my officers is very important, but our evaluations have found that the programme was most effective when we also educated their dependents, that is to say, our wives and children. These will be the first to benefit from any change in behaviour.”
By working with police officers as well as soldiers, teachers, lawyers, judges and religious leaders, the project, known as ‘Bienvenue aux Changements dans la Communauté’ or Behavior Change Communication, seeks to turn those in positions of power within the community from potential abusers of authority into the loudest advocates and catalysts for change.
Two of the women involved in the session I attended told me afterwards that they had already discussed some of the issues after their husbands came home from the meeting for men. Somina, 56, made it clear they had much more to discuss after her own meeting:
“He didn’t tell me about everything I heard today. I’ll be going home now to speak with him and my children about the bits he forgot to mention.”
Just 22 hours after the devastating 7.0-earthquake hit in January 2010, International Medical Corps’ Emergency Response Team was on the ground in Haiti providing medical care to survivors. Our doctors and nurses were able to mobilise on an unparalleled scale to provide 24-hour emergency care to the acutely injured at the Hôpital de l’Université d’État d’Haiti (HUEH), a 700-bed hospital in Port-au-Prince. HUEH was badly damaged in the earthquake and many local health care professionals were missing. We were able to save thousands of lives through emergency and trauma care in the critical days following the earthquake.
At the height of emergency operations at the hospital, International Medical Corps treated approximately 1,000 patients per day. Our early entry also gave us the foundation to rapidly expand our operations to 15 mobile clinics throughout Haiti to provide critical services. Through the hospital and mobile and fixed clinics, International Medical Corps teams provided more than 110,000 patient consultations during the first year following the emergency.
When reports of acute diarrhoea emerged from the north of Haiti in October 2010, International Medical Corps doctors and nurses immediately deployed to the region providing emergency relief for the growing cholera crisis. Our network of rapidly constructed cholera treatment centres, supported by 820 community health volunteers to educate communities on how to prevent and identify cholera, meant that more than 30,000 cholera patients received life-saving treatment within the first year following the outbreak.
International Medical Corps was among the first organisations to enter Libya once the conflict began in February 2011, providing emergency medical care to casualties from the fighting and support to hospitals with medical staff and supplies. Among the first challenges our Emergency Response Teams encountered was a chronic shortage of nurses, as thousands of foreign nurses had fled the country. In partnership with the Jordan Health Aid Society, International Medical Corps immediately deployed volunteer nurses to health centres across eastern Libya moving them to towns and cities throughout the country as access permitted. Volunteer nurses trained the local counterparts while working alongside them.
At the country’s borders and within Libya, we supplied those displaced by the fighting with essential relief items, including blankets, bottled water and food. Recognising the danger posed by communicable diseases, our sanitation and hygiene specialists constructed latrines and washing stations in transit camps along the Tunisia borders.
As the fighting went on International Medical Corps worked as close to the front line as possible, providing emergency treatment to those injured in the conflict, and medicines and supplies to besieged towns and cities. In Misurata, inaccessible by road, we evacuated nearly 500 injured civilians by boat. International Medical Corps’ mobile field hospitals treated the wounded from battles in Tripoli, the Western Mountains, Bani Walid, Sabha, Jufrah and Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte.
International Medical Corps mobilized an emergency response in Mali in January 2013 after rebel armed forces from the north began moving south, triggering French military intervention. In Timbuktu, which had spent months under the control of armed Islamist rebel our team were amongst the first international organisations to arrive and found pillaged clinics, missing medical personnel and damaged health infrastructure.
We immediately began supporting eight strategically targeted health clinics in remote areas around Timbuktu, where the Malian Ministry of Health has been unable to maintain adequate services to local communities. By providing medicines, training staff and recruiting qualified doctors and nurses, we can ensure local people will now have access to basic primary and secondary health care for the first time in months
True to our mission to build self reliance, International Medical Corps is also already training community health workers to go out to local markets and spread essential hygiene, reproductive health and nutrition messages. We are also working to rehabilitate clinics damaged during the conflict, by building or repairing latrines, water systems, solar panel systems and other infrastructure repairs, enabling health workers to have stable and well-equipped facilities to help the people of Mali.
Basanti, a young mother of two in Nepal, returned home from fetching water for her family to find her 8-month old son Bishal had fallen into the open cooking fire. Basanti was in shock, but she wrapped her baby in blankets and ran for help. No one in their village or at the local health post knew what to do so she had to travel more than six hours by bus to seek emergency care at the closest hospital. The district hospital could only stabilize Bishal and wasn’t able to treat his wounds properly. As a result, his little fingers contracted into a fist as the burned skin contracted and “healed” over the coming year, making it impossible for him to use his hand. His cheek, lips and eyelid also contracted and tightened, threatening his vision.
After selling part of their farm to pay for transportation to Kathmandu, Basanti sought further treatment for her baby. However, two hospitals in the nation’s capital could not help either. Adding to Basanti’s struggles, her husband abandoned the family, leaving her alone to care for Bishal and his four-year-old sister.
Thankfully, Basanti heard about the surgical care available through ReSurge International, our trusted partner with a 43-year history of serving burn victims. Dr. Rai, ReSurge’s Outreach Director in Nepal, and his team restored Bishal’s eyelid and his hand will soon be surgically repaired as well.
Even though it took more than a year for him to get appropriate treatment, Bishal is one of the lucky ones. Thousands of children never get the care they need to live a normal life after a disabling burn.