Sister Mary-Ellen Francoeur dances with women quarry workers at Nyatende, South Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Francoeur spent two weeks in the Congo with a KAIROS delegation. Photo by Ian Thomason, KAIROS

Changed forever by ‘Women of Courage’

By  Sr. Mary-Ellen Francoeur sos, Catholic Register Special
  • August 4, 2013

I spent two weeks in June in the Republic of Congo representing the Canadian Religious Conference as part of a five-person delegation called The Women of Courage. The delegation’s name was deeply inspiring and humbling.

An initiative of KAIROS Canada, the trip had many objectives. We were exposed to human rights issues and also learned how the country’s long conflict was connected to the industry of mineral resource extraction. But calling the delegation Women of Courage indicated our particular focus on the historic disrespect for women’s human rights and on the unspeakable, gender-based sexual violence that is increasing in frequency.

Our first meeting was with the Secretariat of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, based in Burundi. This conference was set up after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda for the purpose of establishing protocols within the Great Lakes Region to address security, justice and human rights abuses. A key concern was sexual and gender-based violence. The recommendations and structures that have been developed are impressive, yet much work remains to bring peace and security to an astounding number of women who are raped and isolated from their families and communities on a daily basis.

Human rights activists courageously risk their lives, and the toll is great. Pascal Kabungulu was a former director of Heritiers de la justice, a KAIROS partner organization.

He was assassinated in his home five years ago and to date his killers have escaped justice. Dr. Mukwege Denis, a surgeon and founder/director of the Panzi Hospital which treats victims of rape, has faced death threats and must live with ongoing protection. The unbearable suffering, loss and despair of women has been met by the compassionate and devoted outreach of organizations such as Heritiers de la justice, whose representative visit villages to spread a message of human rights, equality of women and peace.

For me, the heart of our delegation experience was meeting women whose lives were transformed by the loving and faithful presence of Heritiers. Our heavy spirits were uplifted as they witnessed. One women, Eliza, could not express her story in words alone. She spontaneously poured out her experience in what I can only describe as sacred dance and chant. In this way, she expressed to God her pain, despair and profound need following the murder of her husband and children, as well as her own rape.

Eliza revealed a faith that God was listening to her prayer. Her dance moved into her salvation story as she encountered the care of Heritiers personnel. They brought her to the hospital for healing and counselled her on her rights. Today, Eliza is amazed at her strength and courage as she spends her life spreading this empowerment to other women.

We also met women in the isolated village of Nyatende, where the only source of income for women is the exhausting labour of carrying quarry stones on their backs in cloth sacks up a steep hill to a road from where the stones are trucked to construction sites. Corrupt employers had been exploiting women and refusing them a salary until Heritiers arrived.

Now as we watched their climb up the hill — a climb that is symbolic in many ways — the women broke into a chorus of song which continued as they deposited their stones and joined us. Despite their exhaustion, they appeared radiant as, along with song, they began to dance in joy, giving praise and thanks to God for the assistance of Heritiers and for the presence of our delegation of solidarity.

In each of these meetings, I felt a profound oneness with these women, actually joining them in their dance and song. Together we could celebrate ourselves as Women of Courage. Hope, healing and peace will come as we work as an international community to call for an end to violence against these women.

Faith communities can play an important role in this process through prayer, but also by engaging in advocacy. As women are healed, so too are whole communities. As women take their equal place in society, the whole society is stronger. This is beginning to happen, and it is up to us to keep it growing.

(Sr. Francoeur sos is a psychologist and spiritual director. She has been involved in the work of justice and peace for many years, and is a member of several peace organizations.)

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