By Faith Karimi, CNN
Jan 29 (CNN) — An inaugural group of Congolese women graduated Saturday from a gender violence survivors program in the nation’s east, where armed rebels roam the hills and rape residents.
Eastern Congo residents — including men and boys — have faced brutal rapes for years, with the assailants thrusting chunks of wood and guns into them in some cases.
As part of the program in Bukavu, 180 gender violence survivors took part in activities such as group therapy, dance classes, theater, self-defense and sex education.
“Upon their arrival, the faces of these women showed signs of despair, discouragement and loneliness,” said Christine Deschryver, Congo director of the program.
“Over time, they have, little by little, been helped to use their past difficulties as a source of empowerment. … These women have moved from pain to power and will return to their homes ready to help revolutionize their communities.”
The program is run by V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls founded by Eve Ensler, the award-winning playwright and author of “The Vagina Monologues.”
These women have moved from pain to power and will return to their homes ready to help revolutionize their communities.
Congo’s program was created and developed by women on the ground and provides a platform to turn their pain to power, the group said.
Eastern Congo is vast and poverty-stricken, but rich in resources such as diamonds, timber and copper.
Large parts of the country lack authority, giving government soldiers and homegrown militias free rein to pillage and rape.
A study in the American Journal of Public Health last year reported that 1,152 women — or 48 per hour — are raped daily in Congo, a rate higher than previous estimates by aid agencies.
The eastern region is also a hot spot for the so-called “conflict minerals,” which led the United States to intervene after human rights groups said the resources are used to fund wars in the nation and neighboring countries.
While Congo is among the nations with the largest United Nations peacekeepers, the forces have been ineffective in stopping rapes in the sprawling, remote region.
Stability in Congo — which borders nine countries — is vital to Africa’s Great Lakes area. The eastern region has undermined peace in the nation years after a 1998-2003 conflict left 5 million people dead.
At the time, neighboring nations joined the civil war, arming rebel groups of choice to gain access to the vast resources. Some African soldiers later retreated, but some rebel groups remained and are mostly based in the east.