While in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), GNWP (myself included) and Rwanda Women Network (RWN) staff members traveled with Synergie des Femmes pour les Victimes des Violences Sexuelles to Center Bulengo in Lac Vert. Along with it serving as a safe haven for women survivors of sexual violence, the center provides counseling, programs to increase women’s skills, and also established programs that support the operational expenses of the center.
Lac Vert is roughly 13 kilometers northwest of Goma. Driving away from Goma the disparity between this busy city and smaller villages becomes apparent. Goma is a bustling city with infrastructure, government agencies, United Nations offices, including MONUSCO. There are also lakefront hotels, numerous small storefronts, including pharmacies, butcher shops, bakeries, and small markets. There are open-air markets and also the traditional roadside stalls with food and clothing.
Once outside of Goma the large houses and commercial buildings disappear, as well as the paved roads, though much of the unpaved roads are maintained and relatively even. That’s not to say that permanent structures do not exist in the Lac Vert area, they do – they are just less frequent. The roads also transition to bumpy, rocky unpaved roads in the immediate area around the center.
A lack of water is one of the major issues facing Center Bulengo and local residents, including the IDP camp, which is in walking distance. Justine Masika Bihamba from Goma-based Synergie des Femmes pour les Victimes des Violences Sexuelles (SFVS) established the center. She explained that plans exist to drill a well in the area; and the organization is currently securing funding for the well.
Oversight and upkeep is a joint venture by SFVS and the women who work at Center Bulengo. The center employs three full time staff members and two councilors. Ms. Masika Bihamba clarified that a psychologist is made available for more complicated cases. The center focuses on rehabilitation through the training of women in varied activities. Prior to training, the women are asked about their employment preceding the conflict. The center then attempts to build on a woman’s existing skills in a particular trade before training her for a new profession. Ms. Masika Bihamba described the women who visit or stay at the center as much happier with the knowledge that they have a safe place to stay and after receiving trainings.
There are not a lot of opportunities to earn money in Lac Vert. One example of available work is removing soil from the mountain to build houses in Goma and other communities. This backbreaking work only commands $30 for each full truck of soil. One of the ways that the center supplements its funding is by raising rabbits and pigs that are sold at the market, though outside funding is still necessary.
The center has a significant impact on women once thought of as solely victims of sexual violence. These women are healing and achieving empowerment through advocating for their fellow survivors of conflict. The center offers classes on women’s rights, women peace and security, literacy, and leadership. The offering of these courses is significant because schools do not exits in the area.
At Center Bulengo, women learn how to color cloth and make baskets to sell at the market and to individuals who visit the center. The beautiful textiles created at the center sell for $20.00 a piece. Unfortunately, the closest market is too far to walk to and requires transportation, which limits how often the women are able to sell the textiles. SFVS is providing an invaluable safe space and also programming that enables women in a remote area to learn skills that create a source of income but also so that the women can teach other women in the community to build capacity and transfer skillsets.
For more information about GNWP member Synergie des Femmes pour les Victimes des Violences Sexuelles (SFVS), please visit their Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/synergiedesfemmes
For more photos of Center Bulengo visit the gallery at GNWP.org.