HEAL Africa began as a small clinic, but it was destroyed when Mount Nyiragongo erupted in 2002. They’ve since rebuilt, and are now a teaching hospital with a state of the art surgical center, specializing in traumatic gynecologic fistulae. These injuries commonly result from the brutal rapes that happen because of the war. Women are attacked and raped sometimes by groups of twenty or more men. These men penetrate them with weapons and sometimes shoot, burn, or mutilate and then leave them for dead. HEAL Africa’s hospital was designed to treat their wounds.

But when the hospital opened, the doctors couldn’t find many rape victims. Only women who were dying of infection or gravely injured would come. HEAL Africa had an empty treatment facility in the middle of what is arguably the worst systematic, gender-based violence on Earth today.

The Democratic Republic of Congo lives a culture of silence. By the old ways, a woman who is raped is shunned by her family and cast out of her community. She has no worth in the world, and is utterly destroyed by the crime. If it happens and she can keep it secret, she will suffer in silence. This is why HEAL Africa and Mama Muliri are so important. The women don’t easily trust, because the risk to their future is so great. Why should a woman go to a hospital for treatment when it means that she must break her silence?

Mama Muliri knew that the hospital would not be a safe place for the women who needed treatment unless the culture of silence was broken. To accomplish this change, she had to engage the men — so she and her colleagues went to the religious leaders and convinced them to teach their people about the culture of silence and why it was wrong.

Then she and her colleagues went to the leaders in the villages and taught them how their ways conflicted with the law, and convinced them that their traditions regarding rape had to change. This tactic was hugely successful, and the villages began to comply with the law. The villages started to support the rape victims, and HEAL Africa trained village women in crisis counseling to help rape victims get the care they need. From this work came the Nehemiah Committees made up of Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and indigenous church and village leaders:

These initiatives took the name of “Nehemiah Committees”. In 2004, the first three committees were established, today there are more than 65 throughout rural villages in the surrounding region of Goma.

The name for the program derives from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, where a community is mobilized to rebuild the walls of their destroyed city. Nehemiah Committees are locally selected by community members and represent all faiths and tribes in the community. The various faith communities…are at the heart of the work and the focus of the training.

The women in these villages now have a safe place to break their silence.

But what would become of the women after their treatment? If they went back to their villages as victims, the culture of silence would persist. Mama Muliri thought that calling them survivors wouldn’t work, either, as it did nothing to remove the stigma of being raped, and it was not a lot different than saying the women were victims. She and HEAL Africa started a vocational training program to give the women skills that their village depended on — and she called the graduates Strong Women in the Community.

It didn’t make sense, though, to allow only rape victims to be the Strong Women. First, a women who had not suffered a rape needed vocational training, too — and second, creating Strong Women in a way that was independent of their trauma history helped to remove the stigma attached to the rape. Their rape wouldn’t define them in their community. HEAL Africa opened their training program to all women, and gave birth to their Women Stand Up Together program.

Women Stand Up Together has a network of safe houses where women receive support in crisis, training, and resources they need. The village counselors can go to the safe houses to learn new skills, and the women can network to build a sustainable future for the DRC.

The safe houses also provide a way to administer or acquire urgent and preventive care for rape victims:

Village counselors also know to refer to local medical clinics for infections, sexually transmitted diseases, or Post Exposure Prophyllaxis (PEP for HIV will dramatically reduce transmission of HIV if administered within 72 hours of a rape. Most villagers don’t know this, and it’s not available in many clinics out of the city.) HEAL Africa has been working with 67 rural clinics to provide training and medicine, and through the counselor networks to inform women and girls of the urgency of getting treatment quickly.

Women Stand Up Together started with 4 safe houses; they now have 28, and they are making an enormous impact on the quality of life and status for women they serve. HEAL Africa also has a fledgling microcredit program that is about six months old. They’ve already paid back their principle and interest, and are using the profit that microcredit brings to provide more loans to women who want to start businesses.

And this is what sets HEAL Africa apart from other relief organizations working in the DRC. HEAL Africa is founded and led by Congolese people, so it can build itself and grow through community organization. Foreign relief agencies are helping tremendously in the DRC, but they are centrally located and cannot reach the villages with community networks like HEAL Africa. And they cannot build a lasting peace — only the people of the DRC can create a peaceful future for their country.

Marta wants us to hear her story. She was badly injured when she was raped and burned, and she made her way to the HEAL Africa hospital through the community networks described here. She was a resident at HEAL Africa’s Grounds For Hope shelter that houses women who need time to heal because of their extensive injuries. To date, she has had five reconstructive surgeries to help her close her eye lids and regain balanced use of her arms.

She told her story to Ben Affleck in 2008 when he traveled to the DRC for ABC’s Nightline — her interview starts about 2:50 in this excerpt:

To date, HEAL Africa’s surgical team has repaired about 2000 fistulae, traumatic and obstetric.

What can you do to help?

– Donate to help HEAL Africa build a new hospital, contribute to their microcredit program, or other community projects.

– Be aware that the tech industry is complicit in this conflict. The war is financed largely by a corrupt mining insustry. Learn more. Start by looking at a slideshow about a Congolese tin mine from NYT, or Youtube Taking On Conflict Minerals.

– Write a letter to VP Joe Biden, and tell him that blood minerals support the horrific violence in The DRC.

– Contact your senators. Your effort here will make an enormous impact toward advancing good legislation. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations does create policy regarding violence the DRC, tell them about the problem of blood minerals, and tell them that you want them to pass a law that regulates conflict metals.

Urgent Action!!! Ask your senators to support the efforts to regulate conflict metals in congress, S.891 HR 4128, The Conflict Minerals and Trade Act. Call you Senators and Representative, and be sure to tell them that Pt-group metals might contribute to the conflict and be blood minerals, as well.

– Write to the companies that make your electronic devices, and encourage them to boycott blood minerals, sign the Conflict Minerals Pledge and offer certification that their products are blood mineral-free.

– Work with advocacy groups like Enough, and Raise Hope for Congo.