Dr. Mukwege and survivors of sexual violence at Panzi Hospital, DRC

Mending Bodies, Healing Lives

Can small, grassroots organisations really make a lasting difference in the lives of women and have an impact on the AIDS pandemic itself?

Community-based projects are working with almost desperate determination to meet the needs of women who are living in untenable situations of violence and therefore increased vulnerability to HIV.

Take Musasa, for example. Despite political turmoil and hyperinflation in Zimbabwe, the Musasa project has managed to increase its support for women.

Women who have been subjected to violence are often unable to return home for fear of recrimination, shame or blame. They need shelter and Musasa provides it. As women strive to reclaim their lives, self-esteem, hope and security, Musasa provides vital counselling. For women who want to pursue legal redress, Musasa ensures they have supportive legal assistance. These and other vital support services contribute directly to the long-term health and independence of these women confronting the gender inequality that makes them more vulnerable to HIV.

Cecilia is one of those women: “My husband was not peaceful. He used to beat me. He would take my pay and put the money in his bank account. He slept with another woman and then I got HIV. Musasa gave me shelter and legal help and I divorced. I got some property (from the settlement). I am hoping to make it on my own now, with economic improvement from Musasa.”

The dedicated workers of the Musasa project go even further, using their expertise to advocate with those who have the power to influence communities and local and national policies. They have been remarkably successful in getting constructive participation from the police, the judiciary, community leaders, young people and men willing to become mentors to other men. They host radio programmes and hold monthly educational talks to encourage women to speak out about human rights.

And then there’s the remarkable Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the face of blatant acts of sexual violence as a strategy of war in the Congo, Panzi Hospital rebuilds women’s broken bodies and provides free medical care, accommodation, food and support to survivors. Panzi treats as many as 4,000 women survivors of rape and mutilation a year.

This year, Panzi is launching an ambitious project to provide economic and counselling support to a thousand women and girls – all survivors of sexual violence – most now living with HIV. They will work together in groups based on their skills and interests, such as poultry rearing, sewing or catering, to support one another and generate income. Panzi’s dedication to the women it supports is immeasurable. Its ground-breaking work is simply heroic.

Photo: Dr. Mukwege and survivors of sexual violence at Panzi Hospital, DRC.

Originally published in the Spring 2010 issue of Spotlight on Grassroots.

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