Scottish photographer Angela Catlin visited the Democratic Republic of Congo to document the stories of women and girls subjected to sexual violence in an appalling human rights crisis engulfing the war-torn country. 

Working with the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF), she met with women and girls who survived sexual violence and are now working to rebuild their lives.

SCIAF helps them with trauma counselling, medical care, free legal assistance to prosecute their attackers, and support to become financially independent.

Catlin met women who agreed to be photographed and tell their stories, despite the stigma attached to people who have experienced sexual violence.

In DRC, children born of rape are often viewed as a reminder of what has happened and they can be accused of witchcraft and sorcery.

Many do not go to school: they are left on the street, hungry, rejected by their families. But others are loved and nurtured by their mothers. Their futures can be bright, given the right support.

Here are their stories.

Bernadette is 60 years old. Ten years ago, armed men attacked her village and committed terrible acts upon many locals.

“They came and got into my house. They took me in the bushes with others – my three brothers, two cousins, my son, myself and other women, maybe as many as 20,” she says.

“They started killing all the men. They cut the people in pieces as if cutting a goat or a chicken and put the pieces in piles, as if they wanted to sell it…we were just waiting to be killed.

The women were bound together with mosquito nets and told to go into the bush.

“They told us to take off all our clothes,” she says. “They put us on our hands and knees and raped us. If you cried, they beat you.”

Bernadette was beaten with a knife after she cried out. She explains the rebels wanted to kill her, but didn’t as they still had not eaten the remains of those murdered already.

“Just then we heard shooting everywhere and saw the rebels running away. We realised it was the government army which was coming.”

When Bernadette managed to get back to her village she was reunited with her husband, but they realised their children were missing. “We still don’t know what happened to them,” she says.

She spent the next two months recovering in a health clinic in the next village, and attended three different hospitals to treat her extensive injuries. She and her husband left the area a few years later.

“I couldn’t stay there anymore and see people dying and being killed. As I had escaped death, I needed to move,” she says.

“The programme has really benefited me. I don’t know what I would have done without it. We can eat. The children can study. I have bought a plot of land and am able to pay healthcare fees which I couldn’t afford before.”

In February last year, six women travelled through the forest on foot to trade local produce in a larger town. Before they could reach the town, three men attacked and raped each women. Joan, 52 years old, was one of the women.

“Three men raped me and then left me on the ground,” she says.

“A group of other people came and they heard me crying. I had been there for about three hours. We went with them to Bunyakiri. I didn’t know where the other four women I was with went.”

The following day, Joan was told about a SCIAF trauma centre in the area.

“I was told there is still time to prevent illnesses and that I needed go to the hospital. I was afraid and didn’t go. Later, when the pain continued I decided to go to hospital. They found that I had sexual infections and that I may also have HIV.”

The centre has helped her with counselling and medical treatment. She was also set up with a goat and given help to start farming.

Joan lives alone with her children and knows she faces stigma in her community.

“People in my village know what has happened to me. Sometimes they laugh at me and others understand because they have also suffered. What gives me strength is when I participate in the women’s group and listen to stories of what has happened to others.”

Before the attack she ran a successful business, but is now afraid to travel to larger towns. She longs for an end to the civil war which has devastated so many lives in DRC.

“It’s important to promote peace. My children are afraid to go out. When it’s dark people are afraid. I long for peace

“Please keep helping this project, you are helping to save the lives of many people”

Twenty-two year old Lisa was raped by a stranger when out working in a field. She became pregnant as a result of the attack and gave birth to a boy named Jacob.

“I was weeding in our field and I didn’t know where the man came from. He was very strong and he started beating me. He then kicked me and I fell down. He tore my clothes and raped me with force.

“After the rape, I laid there till dark, in shock.”

Lisa was given some treatment at a nearby hospital, but was later turned away as she had no money.

Her son is now three.

“We live in a very small house made with mud and a thatched roof. When it rains, the rain comes in. None of us has been to school because we are too poor.”

Lisa faces added discrimination because she has albinism, a condition which means she lacks pigment and is very pale skinned.

“It is dangerous having albinism in Africa. I met a boy when I was coming back from church. I was afraid that he wanted to earn dollars by selling my head.”

Pauline‘s husband was killed and she was raped by the same armed men in 2014. Now 37, she is putting the pieces of her life back together.

“We were at home and at around 8pm when we heard a lot of noise outside,” she says. “We didn’t know what was happening.

Her husband was captured when he went outside. He was then raped and had his sexual organs mutilated, before being killed.

“Six men then pushed me into the house and raped me. I wanted to flee. The older children ran but the little ones were left behind and started crying.”

Her oldest son witnessed the attack aged just seven years old.

“After the soldiers had gone, a group of people found me and brought me to hospital. They also buried my husband and I never got to see him.

Her neighbours fashioned a makeshift stretcher and carried her for two hours on foot, to the nearest health centre. They found it flooded with victims, but abandoned by doctors in the chaos.

Pauline became pregnant from the rape but the child died. It was a boy.

With help from SCIAF however, her life has started to change.

“I have been able to take a loan and start a small business,” she says.

“So, when I come back from the market, I take a little money to eat, a little to save and a little for school fees.”

“I have three children in school. Before we ate one meal a day – now we eat three times.

“And what is more, in the past I used to collect water far away and face the danger of being raped again. Now we have water in the village. We are all involved in the water committee. Life is better now.

Vivian, 18, and her family live in a slum in Bukavu, a city in eastern DRC, having fled from their village in 2014 after it was attacked by armed men.

She became pregnant at 17 years old, after being raped by someone she knew from the neighbourhood.

“I didn’t tell anyone, not even my mother. When I saw I’d missed my period, I told my mother and they started looking for the boy, but he was no longer here,” she says.

Her rapist returned later and tried to force Vivian to take drugs that, he said, would end her pregnancy. But she refused.

“My father heard us arguing and called us inside the house and spoke to us. Then he went to the chief of the area to tell him.”

Her and the child’s father were taken into child protection, but SCIAF organised a lawyer to help prosecute her abuser.

He was sent to prison for three years, and is expected to pay reparations.

Her son Christopher was born on 27 January, 2019, and Vivian is making plans for their future.

“I love my baby, I feel happy with my baby but I would have loved to finish school. In the future, I would like to earn a living and support my baby by making clothes.”

Sylvia, 41, was abducted from her village by armed men in 1998 during the DRC’s brutal civil war. She left behind her husband, family and two-month old baby.

“There was no way we could run away,” she says.

“I had been looking for food in the field. They stopped me – I was so afraid I couldn’t move. Others were carried away. Those who ran were shot.

“They made me walk and they hit me on the back with the butt of their guns. I left everything. When we arrived in a neighbouring village they looted everything and made us carry everything.

If any fellow prisoners complained of being tired, they were shot.

“I saw two people shot like this. We were all afraid. I saw so many people die I don’t even remember a number.”

“They were beating us all day long. Sometimes we would not eat. If you were lucky the chief would take you and they wouldn’t beat you – you were a little protected.”

Sylvia escaped her captors and spent a week in hiding. She walked for a month to get back to her village, with precious little food.

“I escaped because I was thinking about my family – my two-month old baby. I had no news of them. I wanted to see my three children and husband.

“When I arrived home I found my mum had died. My young child had died at three months. My husband had married another woman. ”

She spent three weeks in hospital, where she received counselling. When she returned to the village her husband told her he would stay with his new wife, so she lived with her father.

“When I remember what I have experienced I feel very bad. This life was the worst.”

Her counselling through SCIAF helped Sylvia to process her trauma, and she learned new skills.

“It hurt me so much because I remembered what I had experienced but after it I still felt hurt but not as bad as before.

“We also learned new sustainable farming techniques. We started with a vegetable garden. With the veg we grow now, we can sell it in the market, and with the money we can educate my child, buy what I need and also save.

“Today I cannot say I still face real difficulties because of everything in the past. But now the challenge I face is that I really want my daughter to finish school.”

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