Therese (this name has been changed for protection reasons) lived with her family in Luebo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, but around 2017 violent clashes between the militia and the Congolese armed forces surrounded her hometown and her life changed forever.
A group of men murdered her husband in front of her and burned down her house in the middle of a stampede. That was the day this woman and her ten children were forced to move 300 kilometers from their home to finally settle in Kananga, escaping the violence.
“Shots were heard everywhere. We started running, panicked,” Therese recalls. They headed towards the forest, without a clear direction, there they ran into four soldiers who raped her and her 22-year-old daughter at gunpoint in front of the rest of her family.
After the abuse, they hid in the bushes for more than three weeks, during which time their two youngest children starved to death.
Like this mother and daughter, more than 40 million women and girls around the world who flee for their lives face situations of extreme vulnerability.
Sexual violence, exploitation and abuse are factors that force them to flee their homes in search of protection and, at the same time, it is one of the most recurring risks they face throughout the entire cycle of forced displacement. , in the countries of origin, transit and destination.
During these types of situations, they are unprotected and are more likely to suffer abuse or be victims of human trafficking. But despite these dangers, they flee: they risk death to survive.
Therese, 47, in the courtyard of her home in Kananga, Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she arrived after fleeing conflict in 2017. Photo: UNHCR/Vittoria Moretti
The stigma of sexual assault
Life in Kananga, Kasia, was not easy. Therese and her children were traumatized by everything they experienced in such a short time. They had no way of getting money and the inhabitants discriminated against women because of the sexual violence they had suffered.
“I fear for my daughter. I wonder if she will get married and have children because, according to our traditions, women who have been raped are often rejected”, Therese confesses. The stigma they face in some communities after the abuse is also terrifying. In regions of the Congo, many women are expelled from their families due to social norms against sexual assault.
Despite everything, Therese did not give up and continued to fight to give her children a better future. She participated in a vocational training program sponsored by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
He worked for 8 months to learn to drive, get his license, and know how to dismantle and repair engines, tires, and brakes. Thanks to this knowledge, she has financial independence and today she can financially support her children.
These programs equip refugees and survivors of extreme situations with tools and skills that help them become self-sufficient.
UNHCR promotes the development of programs and training that allow women to enter traditionally more masculine worlds, such as auto mechanics, electronics and information technology, so that they can financially support their families, as well as explore new skills. and challenge gender stereotypes.
Karmen Issam Sakhr, UNHCR Regional Representative for South America.
“I learned a trade that I love. It will allow me to be independent and take care of my family”, she says proudly. Since 2020, hundreds of survivors and people at risk of GBV in Kasai and Kasai Central provinces have received assistance from UNHCR and partners.
The implementation of projects like the one that has provided a livelihood for Therese requires funding. To make this reality visible and encourage support for millions of refugee and displaced girls and women who find themselves in situations like Therese’s, Fundación ACNUR Argentina develops the “Flee to Live” initiative.
Through it, it is possible to collaborate from this country to continue implementing these programs and providing protection and assistance to an increasing number of women and girls who year after year escape to save their lives.
Leaving home abruptly, with only the clothes on our backs and little food to reach the nearest border happens every day in all parts of the world.
In this dangerous journey that refugees and displaced people from all over the world go through to save their lives, unaccompanied, pregnant, disabled, elderly or heads of household girls and women are more exposed to suffering gender-based violence and discrimination while seeking asylum.
Therese’s story is one of more than 103 million stories of refugees and displaced people around the world. No one chooses to be one of them, but we can all choose how to help.
From Argentina it is possible to support refugees and learn more about this reality by contacting fundacionacnur.org. That women and girls stop fleeing to live depends on everyone. Let’s not look the other way.
*This name was changed for protection reasons.
The author is the UNHCR Regional Representative for South Latin America