In The World's Rape Capital, Doctors Fight Violence With Science

Jan 5, 2015
Originally published on January 5, 2015 6:17 pm

Tina Amissi grew up in a small village in the Democratic Republic of Congo with 26 brothers and sisters. When her mother insisted she drop out of school and help out around the house, it was her polygamous father — and his iron authority — who saved her.

Amissi's father supported her dream to go to medical school in the city of Bukavu. Even now, she gets so excited recounting the story that she can't stop from clapping.

"My father said, 'You'll leave your mother?' " Amissi recalls. "I said, 'Yes, yes, yes, yes, I'm going.' "

When the classwork got too hard and Amissi wanted to drop out of medical school, it was her father who walked hundreds of miles from his village to her dorm room just to give her a critical pep talk.

"And truly, I thank him for that," Amissi says. "If he hadn't done that, I wouldn't have been able to become a doctor."

Now Dr. Tina Amissi works at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, a city in the war-torn eastern Congo. The area is considered the rape capital of the world. Each year, Panzi Hospital treats more than 2,000 rape survivors — not just with medical care. The hospital also hosts Western organizations that teach these women job skills, such as basket weaving, to give them some means of self-support when they've been shunned by their communities.

But do these types of individualistic, Western solutions work for a country that has a more communal culture? Amissi isn't sure.

Now a new research center at Panzi Hospital is giving Amissi and other Congolese doctors the tools to fight sexual violence with science. The center is called ICART — or the International Center for Advanced Resource and Training — and it's funded by the University of Michigan. ICART will give Congolese researchers the opportunity to investigate the causes and impacts of rape and to see which interventions actually do help women — and help a community as well.

One topic of study: basket weaving. Western organizations have taught many women in the region to weave baskets so they can support themselves. Amissi points out that most women end up returning to their home villages after treatment at Panzi Hospital. But if a woman is an outcast, her neighbors may not buy her baskets, no matter how well she weaves them.

So it's unclear how a rape victim will fare in her community. "And the woman herself," Amissi says, "when she returns home, how does she feel?' "

Amissi doesn't know the answer to these questions yet, but because of the new research center, she's starting to figure it out.

The center's director, Kanigula Mubagwa, says Congolese researchers now have the resources to study, with academic rigor, the bigger issues for patients they encounter in their clinics.

The researchers can look at the broader context of the problem. In this case, that means not just doing a survey to find out how many people were victimized by which armed group, but looking at what it will take for the community to repair itself.

For rape survivors and their children to be accepted back into the fold, perhaps, some of the money given to individual survivors to teach them job skills might be more effectively granted to a project that helps the whole village's economy.

"I think the local researchers, when they talk to the local population, they might be much more easily heard than a Westerner, who will come in and say, 'Well, you have to accept these women. You have to accept these children,' " Mubagwa says. "People might think that they are being imposed on with traditions that are different from theirs."

Amissi says she's excited to get to that stage of her research. One thing that working at Panzi Hospital has taught her is that rape survivors can be incredibly strong. She's eager to go into their home communities to find the strong men who can support them.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We don't tend to think about rape in war-torn countries as a topic for research, but a new center in eastern Congo - the so-called rape capital of the world - aims to combat sexual violence with better science. At the center, Congolese researchers are studying the long-term impact of rape on survivors their families and communities. NPR's Gregory Warner visited the center to find out what local researchers see that internationals don't.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: When Tina Amisi was a teenager, her mom told her it was time to stop school and help out around the house, but her father protected her. Amisi grew up in a small village in the Democratic Republic of Congo with 26 brothers and sisters, but her father supported her dream to go to medical school in the city of Bukavu. She's so excited recounting the story, she can't stop from clapping.

TINA AMISI: (Through interpreter) And then my father said well, is there a university in Bukavu? I said yes, yes, yes, yes - I'm going. You'll leave your mother? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes - I'm going.

WARNER: When the class-work got too hard and she decided to drop out, it was her father who walked hundreds of miles from his village to her dorm room just to give her a critical pep talk.

AMISI: (Through interpreter) And truly I thank him for that. If he hadn't done that, I wouldn't have been able to become a doctor.

WARNER: Now Dr. Tina Amisi works with women who've mostly been rejected by their fathers and husbands. She works at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, which every year treats more than 2,000 survivors of rape. Many of the women have been shunned by their communities, and so the hospital doesn't just give medical care, it also hosts Western organizations that teach these women job skills like basket-weaving in order to give them some means of self-support when they leave the hospital. But after years of working here, Dr. Amisi has come to wonder if this approach - this Western solution to encourage self-reliance - is the right fit for her country's communal norms. She points out that most women end up returning to their home villages. If the woman is a pariah, her neighbors may not buy her baskets no matter how well she weaves them.

AMISI: (Through interpreter) Thus we have to ask now the question, what is the impact of all that? Does the community perceive it positively or negatively? And the woman herself when she returns home, how does she feel?

WARNER: Amisi doesn't know the answer to these questions yet. She's just at the beginning of her research. But her research is only possible thanks to a new center at Panzi Hospital established by the University of Michigan. Center director Kanigula Mubagwa says it's giving Congolese doctors the resources to study with academic rigor the bigger issues for the patients that they encounter every day in their clinics.

KANIGULA MUBAGWA: The role of Congolese researchers will be similar to the role played by other researchers when they work in their own countries.

WARNER: That is, that they can look at the broader context of the problem. In this case, not just doing a survey to find out how many people were victimized by what armed group, but what it will take for the community to repair itself, for rape survivors and their children to be accepted back into the fold. Perhaps, for example, some of the money that's given to individual survivors to teach them job skills might be more effectively granted to a project that helps the whole village's economy.

MUBAGWA: And I think these people - the researchers, the local researchers - when they talk to the population, they might be much more easily heard than a Westerner who would come and say well, you have to accept these women, you have to accept these children. People might think that they are being imposed traditions which are different from theirs.

WARNER: Dr. Amisi, the doctor with the 26 siblings, says she's excited to get to that stage of her research. One thing that working at Panzi Hospital has taught her is that rape survivors can be incredibly strong. She's eager to follow them into their home communities to find the strong men that can support them.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.

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