The road to Bunyakiri begins promisingly as we leave Bukavu, the bustling commercial capital of Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I am told it was built by Chinese engineers, which explains why children point and shout “Chinois” at me as we pass through their villages. It provides a gentle start to our journey as we skirt the shoreline of Lake Kivu, shimmering in the early morning sunshine.
Bunyakiri, a village 50 miles from Bukavu, has seen some of the worst fighting in DRC’s 15-year war and hosts many of the people displaced from the country’s persistent violence. It soon becomes obvious why this region remains insecure, as the new road comes to an abrupt end after just nine miles and we have to continue our journey along a dusty, potholed track winding through Kahuzi-Biega National Park. The park’s 3,700 miles of rainforests, rolling mountains and extinct volcanoes are famously home to endangered mountain gorillas, but they also shelter several of the remaining armed groups that continue to fight in Eastern DRC. This puts Bunyakiri on the front lines in a war that refuses to end in this region of central Africa.
One of the most devastating consequences of insecurity in this region is the extremely high incidence of gender-based violence (GBV) carried out by armed groups and other perpetrators. In remote villages like Bunyakiri, women largely lack access to appropriate services and information about issues relating to women’s rights and GBV.
Upon arriving at the International Medical Corps Community Resource Center in Bunyakiri, I meet with a group of Congolese GBV volunteers who work with women in the local community to ensure that GBV survivors seek appropriate medical and psychosocial treatment as well as legal advice from our facilities. The volunteers, who seek to promote positive behavioral changes within the community to reduce GBV, speak with me about the changes brought by this U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)- funded project. They describe their awareness raising activities that target women, men and children to ensure that the entire community understands GBV and is aware of the services available for survivors.
When I ask if anyone has specific examples of positive changes observed in the lives of women here in Bunyakiri, every hand in the room is raised at once. The volunteers recount stories of women needing medical evacuation by International Medical Corps to Bukavu to treat wounds from the violence they endured; women coming forward to seek psychosocial and legal help after many years of silence following a sexual attack; and women insisting that they be married in front of the mayor to guarantee their inheritance and child support rights. The volunteers also tell me that the attitudes of their own husbands have changed, as these women are now respected role models within the community and their husbands proudly support their work.
Later, as I thank the volunteers for their efforts and powerful testimonies, one woman implores me to make sure that people all around the world know about the work they are doing here in Bunyakiri. She leaves me with this message:
“We are sure we can make a better life for ourselves and all women in Eastern Congo—but we cannot do it alone.”