Sixteen-year-old Esther* is a new mother – her daughter, Emma, is one week old.
Esther and Emma live in a makeshift camp for people uprooted by the long-running conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. For women and girls living here, motherhood often results not from the wish to build a family, nor from intimacy, but from rape.
The UN says that sexual violence against women and girls in Congo is the worst in the world. In this place, Esther’s story is a familiar one.
Last year, when she was 15, Esther was collecting firewood with her friends from the camp when the group encountered four armed soldiers in the bush.
Her friends ran, but Esther fell and was taken by the men.
Each of the four took their turn to rape her. One is the father of her newborn baby.
“I was too ashamed to tell anyone but my closest friends what had happened,” she explains boldly.
“Then about a month later I knew I was pregnant.”
Esther regularly visits the safe place set-up for children in her camp, run by World Vision. There, she shared what had happened to her in the bush.
“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.”
Staff at the child-friendly space helped Esther to get medical and psychosocial support. That month alone, 25 girls reported rape to World Vision staff in the same camp.
Esther lives alone in the camp after her mother died and her father rejected her. She was living with her grandmother until they were separated during the chaos of a war that has displaced a quarter of a million people into camps.
The camps are densely crowded, chaotic environments in which there are no basic social services and often no police. Women and girls like Esther are particularly vulnerable to rape and sexual violence.
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.
“People often make up songs about me,” says Esther.
“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 adds, smiling.
She delivered Emma in a small health centre in the camp, describing the birth as “a miracle”.
“It’s a contrast,” she says.
“I am suffering, but when I look at my baby I’m happy and I forget about my troubles. Then I remember again.
“I just endure this because I don’t know anywhere else I can go to cry.”
World Vision is working with families in the camps to reduce the chances of violence against women and girls. Fuel-efficient stoves are being introduced, because many more women and children like Esther are highly vulnerable to rape while collecting firewood in the forest.
The aid agency is also working in partnership with other organisations to provide specialised care to victims of sexual violence.
Meanwhile, Esther’s first few days as a mother have been difficult.
The woman she had been staying with has been missing for the past week, so the new mother has been struggling to look after her baby.
But there are signs of hope.
“My neighbours in the camp are helping me with food because they know Emma needs milk,” she says.
And though the future looks uncertain for mother and daughter, Esther’s spirit, very visible in her eyes, remains courageous.
* Esther is a pseudonym