US foreign assistance a boon to survivors of sex violence

US foreign assistance a boon to survivors of sex violence
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Fatima wrings her hands as she describes how two armed men raped her and the other women as they were on their way to sell palm oil at the local market. But the horror did not stop there.

“When they were done with us, they took the young men (who were traveling with us) and put a gun to their heads and forced them to also have sex with us,” Fatima says from her small mud hut in Walikale, in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). “This was a great dishonor. These young men were like children to us. I didn’t tell my husband what happened because I was afraid he would leave me.”

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Fatima is not this rape survivor’s actual name, changed to protect her identity. But her story, as horrific as it is, is all too frequent. It is one of thousands of such stories forever etched in the bodies and memories of women and even men in eastern DRC, a region fraught with haunting stories of sexual and gender-based violence, or SGBV.

 

It is also a region where I have found — dare I say it — tremendous hope, thanks in part to U.S. foreign assistance so active here.

I am a physician and missionary (International Ministries/American Baptist Churches USA) working with IMA World Health to address sexual and gender based violence and other public health concerns in the developing world. My profession, and my Christian faith, lead me to believe we have a responsibility to address injustices and relieve suffering. The United States has a long history of leadership and success in confronting and responding to such needs. It is leadership that must continue.

program funded by the U.S. government helped Fatima recover. Her story is one of hundreds of thousands of such stories where U.S. support saves lives and ensures peace. The project that helps survivors like Fatima is an excellent example of how relatively small U.S. investment — through efforts such as those supported by the United States Agency for Foreign Development (USAID) — can have dynamic impact.

This support we bring, whether relief or development-based is conveyed as a gift “from the American people” and sincerely appreciated by individuals such as Fatima who receive desperately needed help and communities seeking to improve their future. The U.S. leads the world in ‘investing in people and communities’ in need and the dollars go a long way. The entire U.S. foreign assistance budget is only one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget; a small sum and a significant investment in America’s compassion and global image. 

Such generosity provides lifelong impact on the survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, more than I could ever describe. Fatima’s group therapy sessions ended months ago, but each week she still comes together with her group to provide comfort and to support each other. This program is clearly sustainable, desperately needed, and valued by the communities it serves. “The shame began to leave us,” she says. “We began to feel alive again; to understand what happened, and that it was time to leave it in the past.” 

Perhaps that’s the greatest legacy of U.S. humanitarian assistance here where I work — the gift of hope and of a future forged together. Sustained investment in U.S. relief and development programs is the best way our country can maintain credibility as a global leader the world looks to for hope — here in this corner or eastern Congo and throughout, a world full of need and in need of hope.

Dr. Bill Clemmer has lived and served in post-conflict countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan for more than 26 years in affiliation with IMA World Health.