Three women stand with their backs to the viewer on dusty ground in Africa with only their long skirts and feet showing

“When I went to Pascaline’s parents to ask for her hand, they agreed even though I only had half the dowry. When we got married, we were in love.”

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jacques still speaks about his wife Pascaline with love.

“Years went by, we had children, and we were still happy together,” he continues.

Then Pascaline was raped by armed men at the side of the road. They stole everything she had.

“I felt like dying. I never imagined this would happen,” she said

But Pascaline was not talking just about the attack.

The next day, Jacques told her she had to leave home.

“I felt weak. I told myself that I couldn’t live with her anymore,” Jacques said.

“She had to go back to her parents or I would die of unknown diseases.”

Pascaline said, “Even at home I was pushed away. You see how terrible it was, terrible.”

Women suffer twice

A woman in Africa looks at the water while sitting on a platform on a boat with a baby on her back and surrounded by suitcases and bagsUnfortunately, Pascaline’s experience is not unique.

Rape was used as a weapon in the country’s recent war and it is still common there.

Survivors of sexual violence are often rejected by their communities and families, adding to their pain.

They can be so afraid of the stigma that they don’t tell anyone about attacks and don’t seek help. This can lead to health and psychological problems.

Overcoming stigma in a ‘listening house’

“This is a particularly distinct and horrific type of crime,” said Helen Dunham, head of international law and policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

“Often, the women feel that if they seek medical assistance, they will be identified.”

The ICRC helps by offering confidential counselling and medical care for all types of violence within 72 hours.

“Those seeking help in an ICRC ‘listening house’ will not be identified as a victim of sexual violence,” Helen explained.

“Staff and local people also talk there about how to educate communities about the broader and deeper consequences of sexual violence.”

The ICRC supports women like Pascaline, who have to leave home or whose husbands leave them. In those cases, “they also need to look at their livelihoods and how they can rebuild their lives,” Helen said.

“It’s multi-layered. We need to look at how these women can live the dignified life that they deserve.”

“They will move ahead”

Pascaline and Jacques got help from a Red Cross community volunteer, Charlotte, who works to stop families rejecting survivors of sexual violence.

“She told Jacques that what had happened was not my fault,” Pascaline said.

“She told him to let me stay and that tomorrow, she would come and take me to hospital.”

The marriage lasted, but the stigma was so serious that Pascaline lost her small business selling oil and rice in their village.

Now, the couple have to work in other people’s fields and sometimes cannot afford to pay their children’s school fees.

Still, Jacques said, “my wife and I, we get along well. We decide together where to go and work.”

Charlotte added: “I see these two people get along well. They will sort things out and as a family they will move ahead.”

When disasters spur violence

A Malawi Red Cross sign on the front of a truck in the foreground with tents in the distance

People caught up in disasters – such as floods, droughts or earthquakes – can find themselves facing similar issues of sexual violence.

Families can end up living in camps or walking long distances to get food and water.

When there is a disaster, the Red Cross will first meet people’s basic needs for shelter, food, water and health care. Our support then extends to helping people to go home or rebuild what was destroyed.

“Yet we often forget that the most important issues may not be talked about,” says the Zimbabwe Red Cross’ Florence Mangwende.

Florence contributed to the recent Red Cross report on gender-based violence in disasters.

Her research after drought in Namibia and floods in Malawi showed that gender-based violence became more widespread after disasters struck.

But people did not necessarily realise that it was abuse and a crime.

Hands hold a beneficiary card for the Southern Africa Drought Relief Operation of the Namibia Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

In Namibia’s drought, some families stayed in their homes but faced food shortages.

“Sometimes, wives would verbally abuse husbands. They would criticise them because they could no longer support the family,” said Florence.

“This psychological abuse could then lead to physical abuse for both the man and the woman.”

In southern Africa the culture makes it impossible for men to report abuse by their wives, said Florence. Relatives may also cover up violence to keep the family together.

And in some countries and situations, legal systems may not be able to support survivors.

“There may be no system to follow up reports of abuse so there is a low level of reporting,” Florence said.

“Too often women retract allegations of rape and too often the legal system is willing to withdraw them.”

“Another, sometimes hidden, result of emergencies is that families marry off their daughters much sooner and younger than usual,” Florence explained.

Sometimes families do this to relieve pressure in the home or to seek support from their newly married daughter.

But early marriage can lead to many problems for girls and young women. For instance, they are more likely to have complications and even die in pregnancy and childbirth.

First prevent, then act – the right help transforms lives

Baroness Anelay speaking in a panel discussion about sexual violence

As Florence says, “the issues from different countries are similar.”

The Red Cross will soon start a tailored training programme on how to prevent and respond to gender-based violence wherever it occurs.

This will include working closely with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in different countries. They are usually accepted by their communities, which often makes them best placed to understand local beliefs and practices.

We will also build on the research that Florence contributed to, making sure that we can offer expert advice and guidance on the issue.

This was kick-started with a summit in London to share the latest findings on the subject.

The Prime Minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict, Baroness Anelay, was one of the speakers.

“I have visited a number of conflict-affected countries and seen first-hand the terrible effects of sexual and gender-based violence,” Baroness Anelay said.

“But I have also seen how victims’ lives can be transformed when they are given help and support.

“That support often comes from organisations such as the Red Cross, and I greatly value that.”

Photo credits: iStock, Thea Rabe/Norwegian Red Cross, Matthew Percival