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Charity’s airbridge helps DRC rape victims

12 March 2021


Women in North-Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, walk the long distance to the markets, in 2018

Women in North-Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, walk the long distance to the markets, in 2018

A GROUP helping women survivors of the continuing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) released details of its work to mark International Women’s Day on Monday.

Since last September, the international Christian charity the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) has been operating an airbridge to fly women from remote villages to the Panzi Hospital in the provincial capital Bukavu. The DRC has been described by the UN as the “rape capital of the world”, where it is thought that more than 40 women are raped every hour.

The hospital is one of the few facilities offering gynaecological surgery and rehabilitation to women harmed by sexual violence and unassisted childbirth. It can take a victim up to a month to walk to Panzi, sometimes arriving with irreversible injuries, but the airbridge cuts the journey time to a few hours.

The hospital’s founder, Dr Denis Mukwege, who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his work (News, 5 October 2018), described the airbridge as “a miracle for the women of the DRC who are going through inconceivable suffering”. The Panzi Foundation cares for about 3500 women every year. But, Dr Mukwege says, there are thousands more women in remote locations in desperate need of help.

One of the first to benefit was 18-year-old Jamena, who was abducted, raped, and became pregnant last year. Her baby girl died during labour; she suffered an excruciating fistula; and her husband abandoned her. Faced with an 18-day, 1000km walk to Panzi, she was found a place on MAF’s first flight: a two-hour trip that ensured early treatment that, the charity says, probably saved her life.

Donna Jacobsson, whose husband, Dave, is an MAF pilot and its East DRC programme director, described Panzi as: “A place where the women feel a sense of belonging and are cared for with honour and dignity. The strength and resilience of the women is so inspiring, but their stories are heart-wrenching.”

Last month, a UNICEF report said that up to three million displaced children in the DRC face brutal militia violence and extreme hunger. The report, Fear and Flight, estimates that about 5.2 million people are displaced in the country, of which about half were displaced in the past year. During 2020, UNICEF and other NGOs launched a rapid-response programme providing support for nearly 500,000 people, but additional funds are needed. Its 2021 humanitarian appeal for the country for about $384.4 million is only 11 per cent funded.

“Displaced children know nothing but fear, poverty, and violence. Generation after generation can think only of survival,” the UNICEF representative for the DRC, Edouard Beigbeder, said. “Yet the world seems increasingly indifferent to their fate. We need the resources to continue helping these children have a better future.”


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