(Lunda Norte Province, Angola) November 9, 2015 — Maria Jose Mambole, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, stands before a group of 30 women seated under the shade of a tree in rural Angola. She holds up a document that lists different forms of abuse women face: physical, psychological, financial, verbal, abandonment, and sexual.
“But the biggest problem is sexual," she explains. Despite the poverty and xenophobia these women already face as refugees, they are burdened with an additional power-gap due to their gender. Yet together, they have committed themselves to be activists for change.
"Jesuit Refugee Service brought a program to the women in the community which consists of seminars, informational sessions and debriefing. The program aims to stop the violence, facilitate conversations with men and intervene legally – when needed," Maria explains.
The program is not limited to refugee women, but extends to local Angolan women as well.
Monica Muzinga, a refugee from the DRC, since 1997, explains how she, her husband and daughter lived a semi-pastoral life off the land as refugees in Angola. On a rainy night, their difficult yet simple life irrevocably changed. Four men — Monica describes them as security forces — burst into their humble home, tied up her husband and daughter and demanded money. They pleaded with these men explaining that they had no money, and in response, a rifle was pointed at her husband, accompanied by threats that he would be shot.
Not having any money to give these men, Monica was taken and gang raped. She pleaded with them to leave her seven-year-old daughter alone; her daughter was eventually spared a horrific assault. The next morning, riddled with the pain of her physical injuries and the emotional torture she endured, she reported the matter to the local chief — also referred to as the "soba" — who coldly replied that it is not his matter with which to deal.
Monica's husband divorced her soon after that, claiming he could no longer be with her after being forced to watch the incident. Now she is a single mother to their daughter, unable to work as a result of the long-term injuries and chronic health problems with which the assault left her. Today, a year after the traumatic rape Monica endured, she struggles to provide for herself and her daughter, with no emotional support except for the group of activist refugee women led by Maria.
Sadly, it is a significant uphill battle for these women as law enforcement and institutionalized xenophobia has left them victimized by the police and other state authorities.
In 2009, a joint operation was undertaken by the police and military to arrest undocumented migrants. All the women speak of the horrific rapes and abuse they had to endure, as in the case of Anni Mwamba, who had been gang raped by six policemen. Today, she has difficulty walking and is in perpetual pain, six years on. Everyone who speaks of that time has only one thing to say: "2009 was a bad year!"
Recently Anni wanted to open a small restaurant, but, with no endorsement by the "soba," was prevented from doing so by several neighbors who did not appreciate the idea. After receiving several accusations and death threats, Anni was driven from the house she had painstakingly built and lost everything.
JRS has intervened in Anni's case, taking it forward in an effort advocate on her behalf and protect her rights legally. With the assistance of JRS, Maria works tirelessly with these women, as they spread awareness and are always available to lend a listening ear.
Maria is also assisted by the Secretary of the women's group, Joyce Ntumba Anitho. Despite being a refugee from the DRC herself, Joyce is truly a success story as she gives back to her community. She owns a pharmacy and general dealer and assists some of the ladies with pain medication, as well as other sanitation and medical needs they may have. Maria and Joyce not only provide emotional counseling for these women, they stand as examples for the women that success is possible.
The tragic stories of these women speaks volumes to the brutality they have faced and why their rights and dignity needs such concerted focus and protection. JRS Angola works to protect these women, but most importantly, JRS, through these programs, is equipping them to assert their own rights.
by Gushwell Brooks
JRS Southern Africa Communications Officer