It has been said many times that eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is the worst place in the world to be a woman.
Over the past few months working here, I have seen and heard much to back up this claim. I’ve met women and girls who have endured rape and violence, been recruited into armed groups, and are vulnerable to disease and death.
Perhaps that’s why women in Congo come out in such force every year on International Women’s Day.
Today I marched alongside tens of thousands of women through Goma, the largest city in the east. Each section of society was represented – fisherwomen, policewomen, doctors and nurses, beer factory workers, local storekeepers and others working for Government ministries, churches, aid agencies…
Each group was dressed in matching outfits made of luminous Congolese fabrics. Bold, beautiful women danced and clapped their way through the streets, drawing the attention of every man and boy gathered along the roadside.
There was the same buzz of triumph in a small village just outside Minova, where almost six months ago thousands of temporary banana leaf huts sprang up when violence escalated in the area.
There, 100 women celebrate women’s day every day of the year. They live and work together after each one was brutally raped and then rejected by her husband or wider family.
Now they farm as a group, generate an income for themselves and their children, and help each other out whenever there’s a need.
“We look out for each other,” said 45-year-old Brenda. “When one of us is absent from the field, we go to find her and check she’s okay. If she’s sick, we get her medical treatment, comfort her and bring milk and food.”
Women who suffer violence know they can go to their village and receive medical care, a safe place to shelter and a friendly smile.
The founder of the group is today looking after nine women in her own home. Ten arrived on her doorstep just this week after being raped – one so badly injured she had to be rushed to a specialist hospital in the area.
It is not unusual for women to die from the wounds of rape. Of the women and girls who have been taken in by the women’s association, 31 have died in the last few years.
I visited the group this week because the female staff of World Vision donated money and provided them with funds to rent their farmland. We also presented them with brilliant blue and green material for “kangas” or dresses, which every Congolese woman with her superb style pulls off so well.
“This group is very, very important,” said Martha, “because each woman has her own specific problem and when we’re together, we discuss each issue and find solutions.”
Carol is 24 years old. After she was raped more than a year ago, she fell pregnant and was chased from her home.
“When I came here, the group took me to the hospital and cared for me,” she said. “They brought me food, water, everything.
"I have nowhere to go but these women took me into their family.”
Dancing both on the freshly harvested fields of Minova and the dusty streets of Goma, the spirit of every shake of the hips is the same – it’s hard to be a woman in eastern Congo, but when we come together we can rise above the violence and dance on.
Anna Ridout works for World Vision in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo