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".

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