In recognition of International Women’s Day on March 8, Global Washington—a Washington-state-based organization with over 140 members working worldwide—honors the struggles, strides, and strength of women across the globe. Many of Global Washington’s members are working to bring equality and equity for women at all socioeconomic levels, and this article will highlight the incredible work of one such organization: HEAL Africa.
The United Nations estimates that more than 200,000 women have experienced sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). For many of us here in the Pacific Northwest, the ongoing conflict in the DRC feels distant and removed from our daily lives. We read articles just like this one in the newspaper, shake our heads, and move along. Perhaps that’s partly the fault of news outlets; there’s no real way to grasp the magnitude of casualties with figures alone.
Read that number again. More than eleven times the population of Monroe. A third of Seattle’s population. It’s overwhelming. However, numbers are representative of individual people who all have their own stories to tell and experiences to share. Many organizations, including Monroe-based HEAL Africa, are focusing on the humanity of the victims of this conflict, and work to make sure they have the tools to lead resourceful and fulfilling lives even after experiencing trauma.
HEAL Africa has established a large teaching hospital in Goma, as well as smaller community health programs; their staff provide counseling for women who have experienced gender-based violence and work to educate those women who come to Goma from across the DRC. By giving women the tools to ensure their own well-being, HEAL Africa helps them to recover on their own terms: medically, psychologically, and financially. Since opening in 2003, these facilities have enabled 40,000 women to receive treatment and counseling for injuries incurred during rape. HEAL Africa surgeons have performed more than 2,000 fistula surgeries since 2003, and more than 80,000 community activists have received training for HIV/AIDS care and prevention.
Now, read those numbers again—they’re heartening. They also bring home the enormity of the situation and reaffirm that places like the DRC are not lost causes for education, activism, and compassion.
HEAL Africa focuses largely on giving women affected by combat the resources to provide for themselves. Why empower women? Not only do they bear the brunt of gender-based violence, women are also responsible for caring for families, and in many cases, they are the sole providers for their children. They pass on attitudes and create the atmosphere in the home, for good or for ill. Judy Anderson, executive director of HEAL Africa, says of the organization’s focus on women: “Sometimes you have to empower women for them to believe in themselves. If I’d been told that I was a worthless woman, and treated like that, I might not believe I had something valuable to contribute. Why even try? Once women have become empowered, they can take their place alongside men as true partners. You can’t partner with someone that doesn’t want to work with you. It’s hard to work with someone you don’t trust, someone you’re not confident will help you, who wants the best for you.”
Modestine, an employee of HEAL Africa, is a prime example of the power of education and opportunity for women. Thanks to the importance her family placed on education, she grew up with “confidence and a heart for others.” She now works for HEAL Africa managing Wamama Simameni (Women Stand Up Together), which provides safe houses, meeting places, and learning centers for girls and women. After completing a two-month fellowship in Seattle in 2012, Modestine now works for a new organization that has grown out of HEAL Africa, called HOLD. The 157 teen mothers she works with are getting a second chance, and Modestine says, “I’d never seen such need, even when we were working with the women in the Wamama Simameni houses.” She is working with a dedicated cadre of professionals and community leaders who are helping by teaching and providing six centers around the Goma area (so the girls can more easily attend the classes, depending on their neighborhoods).
HEAL Africa’s work in the DRC reminds each of us that overwhelming problems have incremental and lasting solutions. On the eve of International Women’s Day on March 8, we celebrate the work of Modestine and other members of the HEAL Africa team. Although the conflict isn’t over, helping to physically heal the survivors of gender-based violence and empowering women to support themselves and their families are the first steps in a long road to equality.