Independent Appeal: Mother on a mission to make a real difference

Yovita is bringing justice to anarchic refugee camps after her 14-year-old daughter fell victim to a rapist

Yovita Ecanyenzi didn't take up a career in law for the usual reasons. Wealth was not on her agenda. And the paralegal didn't have her eye on a place in the professional classes either. The Congolese mother did it to protect her family and prevent other girls from suffering the appalling sexual violence that her daughter endured.

Her daughter was 14 when she was raped in a refugee camp on the Tanzanian side of the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. The man who did it, a fellow refugee in his late 30s who was known to people in the Mtabila camp, would have probably assumed that his crime, like thousands before it, would go unpunished.

But Yovita reported the attack to the Tanzanian police and took the highly unusual step of pursuing the case to court. With her daughter suffering from horrific injuries and complications including venereal disease, the case was clear cut. The man was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. But for all the efforts of Yovita and her daughter, the man was allowed to escape from police custody and flee back into the DRC.

His family came to Mtabila to take their revenge. Yovita had to be moved for her own protection to another camp at Nyarugusu after police intercepted the would-be murderers. She is still angry: "I didn't know my rights and when he was released I didn't know how to follow it up."

The experience persuaded Yovita to volunteer for legal training at the Women's Legal Aid Centre at Nyarugusu. The collective of lawyers, which has its headquarters in the capital Dar es Salaam, is a partner of One World Action, one of three charities that this year's Independent Christmas Appeal is supporting. The centre has been trying to improve the dire human rights situation by educating refugee women and girls as to what their rights are, and improving their access to justice.

Part of that effort has been to train a team of 32 volunteer paralegals – refugees themselves – who can act as a bridge to the community in the camps. Magdalena Aquilin, who works at the centre, said they found an epidemic of sexual violence among the refugees. And many women and girls saw little choice but to resign themselves to it. Even the most basic human rights were news to these women who had been transplanted from a culture of near total male authority – formalised in a traditional social structure – into a chaotic world where everything was for sale and women were the bottom of the heap.

Mtabila is one of three similar camps which host the human fallout from the wars that washed out of Rwanda and into the DRC in the wake of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Never meant to be permanent, these ramshackle settlements have become home over time to 150,000 people.

Like so many of the refugee camps that appear at times of crisis in the Great Lakes region, they have evolved into semi-permanent towns and villages boasting shops, basic infrastructure and small-scale trading with local communities.

The end result is not the tent cities of television fame, with crowds surrounding giveaways of food and blankets, but settlements of traumatised people with little or no access to long-term planning or hope, hosted in some of the world's poorest countries. The DRC-Burundi border camps are unwanted by the Tanzanian government itself which has been trying through a mixture of persuasion and coercion to get people to go home, despite the dire security situation they will face if they return.

"They're trying to make the camps uncomfortable places to encourage people to go back. They're closing schools and shops," Ms Aquilin said. And the end result was "voluntary repatriation, with force".

Many of the most pernicious problems faced by the camps' women are brought with them from their own traditional cultures: female genital mutilation; polygamy; no property rights for women; and wife inheritance, where widows are inherited by their dead husband's male relatives. Added to this, are the beliefs in witchcraft which have mushroomed in the uncertain world of the camps.

Men claiming to be witch doctors will tell other men diagnosed with HIV that they can cure themselves by raping a virgin. In order to make sure of virginity, they will attack girls younger than 10. In the absence of law, communities defer to custom. "These attacks are often settled with a small payment," says Ms Aquilin. Or worse, the rape victim is married off to her attacker. "Because of these factors, sexual violence has become socially acceptable."

Rahema Hussein, a field worker with the legal centre, has spent nearly six months in the camps running basic education programmes and trying to find women literate enough to receive legal training. She freely admits that it has been arduous.

"These women are so oppressed by culture and superstition. Most of the girls who are raped are younger than 10." She has had to hear a daily recital of horror stories. "Sometimes men are told that if they rape, they will get more profit for their business. The younger the girl, the more the profit."

The women she has met have an "inferiority complex" and few know how to read or write. Changing the fate of a mass of shifting, unwanted refugees – many of whom make victims of their fellow displaced people – would seem to most a hopeless task. Not to Ms Hussein.

"There are things that we can do," she says – training the police to deal with gender-based violence, making women aware of their own rights, getting counselling to the victims and getting justice for them for a start. "When people know about their rights, behaviour starts to change."

She cites the 32 paralegals trained so far, many of whom have an unrecognisable new confidence about them. And even if the government gets its way and drives these unwilling "volunteers" back across the border into the chaos of DRC they will, she asserts, "take what they have learnt with them".

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?