Last week was Esther’s* birthday. She turned 16 at a displacement camp in east DRC. Her mind has been less on birthday celebrations than on the baby she is expecting in a few weeks time. She is pregnant after being raped by armed militiamen last year.
The first time I met Esther she was surrounded by cheering, clapping children as she played an animated role in a drama production. As she acted in celebration of the International Day for the Rights of the Child, her round belly was clearly showing under her loose costume.
Sometimes you meet someone and your first impression sticks with you and you realise more and more that it was spot on. It was like that with Esther. Her face is so open and confident, I felt I knew her straight away.
She told me her story as we sat on a table, legs dangling, in the office at World Vision’s child-friendly space – a safe place for children to play and learn while they’re displaced from home.
She arrived at the camp alone after she was separated from her grandmother in the chaos of displacement. She lived with a woman for a while, until she went to collect firewood with friends not far from the camp. The girls bumped into four armed soldiers as they entered the bush. Her friends ran, but Esther fell and was taken by the men.
Each took their turn and one is the father of her child.
“I was too ashamed to tell anyone but my closest friends what had happened,” she explained boldly.
“Then about a month later I knew I was pregnant. I was at a discussion group for girls at the child-friendly space and they were explaining how you must always report sexual violence to staff at the centre. That day I told my story.”
World Vision helps
World Vision helped Esther get medical and psychosocial support. That month 25 girls reported rape to World Vision staff in the same camp.
As her pregnancy became visible, the woman she was living with threw Esther out of her hut, claiming she could not take care of a newborn baby. With support from aid agencies, she found a new home with another young mother.
“People often make songs up about me,” Esther said when I visited her last week.
“People are always backbiting and making you feel ashamed. They say my baby is a result of prostitution…And I say, God forgive them,” she added smiling.
Esther has no family, except for the 27-year-old woman she lives with, who she now calls Mother. She has no income and depends mostly on the assistance of aid agencies. She does not know how she will afford transport to the hospital about 12 kilometres away in Goma, and is worried about how she will provide the right food for her newborn baby.
But her spirit, very visible in her eyes, remains strong and courageous. Talking about the baby she carries, she says, “He has done nothing wrong. He is innocent.
"I have done nothing wrong.”
Her words remind me of words by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan: “Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development, and peace.”
The brutal act of rape is so shameful that, tragically, the victim often feels some of that shame. Others sometimes cruelly stigmatise those who have endured such violence. The amazing thing about Esther – and other girls like her, fighting to come to terms with the devastating consequences of war – is her refusal to let it get to her.
As she turns 16, and prepares for the birth of her child, she continues to learn and play and look to the future. Real progress would allow her to build a peaceful, equal future.
Anna Ridout works for World Vision in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
*Esther is a pseudonym
Update: March 2009
Esther recently gave birth to a baby girl, Emma, at a small health centre in the camp where she lives. Neighbours are helping her with food.