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Carrying a basket, Kahambu Kasolene follows the kilometre-long path that leads from her house to her vegetable garden. She sets the basket among the spinach plants, then lifts the cloth tied around her long dress to wipe the sweat from her face.
A few weeds grow between the spinach plants. She removes them at the same time as she picks the wide spinach leaves. As the day wears on, Mrs. Kasolene starts to carefully cut the spinach to fit her basket.
She says, “I have to be at the market this evening to sell these.”
Mrs. Kasolene is in her 40s and lives in Rubare village, in Rutshuru territory, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Her husband left her and their two young children in 2011 after she was raped twice by armed men. In order to avoid being sexually assaulted again, she stopped cultivating the fields that were furthest from the village. Isolated and still suffering from trauma, she lives in constant fear and does not use her real name.
To support herself and her children, she started growing spinach on a 25 square-metre plot that belongs to a neighbour.
Looking at her basket with amazement, she says, “Even if my garden isn’t very big, I harvest regularly because it’s well maintained. This vegetable garden is a lot of work, but it pays sometimes, because I invest a lot in it.”
During the rainy season, Mrs. Kasolene picks three basins of spinach each week. She harvests less during the dry season because the stems of the spinach plants dry out.
With her spinach arranged in small baskets, she sets up on the roadside opposite the market entrance to better attract customers.
Mrs. Kasolene says, “Spinach is the favourite vegetable of villagers here.” She often stays late in the evening to wait for her last clients. She earns about 4,500 Congolese francs (about US$3) each evening. When she doesn’t sell all her produce, she eats some and keeps the rest fresh to sell the next day.
Mrs. Kasolene is one of many women in eastern DRC who are working hard to rebuild their lives after surviving rape. Since the 1990s, sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war during ongoing armed conflicts. Following a sexual assault, victims are often isolated or rejected by their families and communities. This affects not only their health but also their economic well-being.
A woman who calls herself Naomy was raped during an armed conflict in eastern DRC in 2012. She remembers suffering so much that she thought it would have been better to die. She says, “I was hurting terribly because of the physical and emotional wounds that I suffered.”
For the past few years, Naomy has been raising chickens in the Kiwanja area, also in Rutshuru territory. Her neighbour helped her get started. Now she has ten chicks in her small farm. She says, “This activity has restored me.”
In about fifty days, the chicks will grow to two kilograms each and will be ready for sale. She will sell them for US$10 each.
Her income from raising chickens isn’t enough to provide for all of her family’s needs, but it allows her to feed her four children and pay their school fees.
Hortence Kalamatha is a paralegal who works for a women’s rights organization called DFJ. She laments the lack of follow-up care, social support, and job opportunities for victims of rape.
She says victims suffer for a long time because of the stigma attached to rape. She says they deserve close support to help them improve their standard of living.
According to DFJ’s local office, at least five women are raped every month in Rutshuru, a territory with a population of about 1.6 million people. Mrs. Kalamatha believes the real number is much higher, because many are afraid to speak out about their experience.
Mrs. Kasolene and Mrs. Naomy are determined to move forward and rebuild their lives. Mrs. Kasolene plans to start growing mushrooms to increase her income. She believes this will enable all her children to complete school.