Angola: Women Refugees, Making a Stand Against Gender Based Violence
27 October 2015

Holding the document outlining the different forms of SGBV women face, Maria Jose Mambole, leader of a group refugee women activists, with the rest of the group in a meeting.
Maria explains that there are six different forms of gender based violence women face and that the women in this community at the northern tip of Angola, in Lunda Norte Province, have to deal with them all.

Lunda Norte Province, 27 October 2015 – Maria Jose Mambole, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 1997, holds up a document that lists different forms of abuse women face. The women seated in the shade, under a tree are activists, activists not only burdened with an unequal balance of power due to their gender, but activists that have to deal with poverty, xenophobia and life as a refugee in rural Angola.

There are thirty women in the group. They organised themselves in an effort to combat the persistent assault they face as women. Maria explains that there are six different forms of gender based violence women face and that the women in this community at the northern tip of Angola, in Lunda Norte Province, have to deal with them all. She goes on to elaborate: “There are six forms of abuse women face here. Physical, sexual, psychological, financial, verbal and abandonment. The biggest problem for women in this refugee community is sexual abuse. Most of the women here are survivors of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV).”

The tragic stories of four of the women in the group speaks volumes to the brutality they have faced and why their rights and dignity needs such concerted focus and protection. The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Angola is doing a lot in an effort to protect these women, but most importantly, JRS has equipped them to assert their own rights.

As to how JRS has assisted, Maria explains: “JRS brought the programme to the women in the community. The programme consists of seminars, information sessions and debriefing. The programme is not only limited to refugee women, but extends to local Angolan women as well. To stop the violence, facilitate conversations with men and intervene legally – when needed – we approach JRS for assistance.”

Sadly, it is a significant uphill battle for these women as law enforcement and institutionalised xenophobia has left them victimised by the police and other state authorities.

Monica Muzinga, a refugee from the DRC, since 1997, explains how she, her husband and daughter lived a semi-pastoral life off the land as refugees in Angola. On a rainy night, their difficult yet simple life irrevocably changed. Four men – Monica describes them as security forces – burst into their humble home, tied up her husband and daughter and demanded money. They pleaded with these men explaining that they had no money and in response a rifle was pointed at her husband, accompanied by threats that he would be shot.

In not having any money to give these men, Monica was taken and gang raped multiple times. She pleaded with them to leave her seven year old daughter alone, who was eventually spared a horrific assault. The next morning, riddled with the pain of her physical injuries and the emotional torture she endured, she reported the matter to the local chief – also referred to as the “soba” – who coldly replied that it is not his matter to deal with.

Monica’s husband divorced her soon after that, he claimed that he could no longer be with her, after being forced to watch the incident. Now she is a single mother to their daughter, unable to work as a result of the long-term injuries and chronic health problems the assault left her with. Today, a year after the horrific rape Monica endured, she has a difficult life as she struggles to provide for herself and her daughter, with no emotional support but for the group of activist refugee women led by Maria.

Maria is also assisted by the Secretary of the group of activists, Joyce Ntumba Anitho, who provides emotional support by gently placing her hand on each woman’s shoulder as they talk about their harrowing ordeals. Despite being a refugee from the DRC herself, Joyce is truly a success story and giving back to her community. She owns a pharmacy and general dealer and assists some of the ladies with pain medication, other sanitation and medical needs they may have.

In 2009, a joint operation was undertaken by the police and military to arrest undocumented migrants. All the women speak of the horrific rapes and abuse they had to endure, as in the case of Anni Mwamba, who had been gang raped by six policemen. Today, she has difficulty walking and is in perpetual pain six years on. Everyone that speaks of that time, has only one thing to say: “2009 was a bad year!”

Recently Anni wanted to start a business, a small restaurant in the area where she lives. Some of her local neighbours did not appreciate this and so had the “soba” summon her. When she arrived at his place, some of the children of her neighbours accused her of being a witch. Under threat of being stoned and beaten to death, she confessed witchcraft in an effort to be spared. She was then driven from the house she had painstakingly built, has been left homeless, lost everything she owned and some of her neighbours are trying to tear down her house and claim the land on which it is built as their own.

JRS has intervened in her case, taking it forward in an effort to protect her rights legally. The stories of Kabasele Katchinde as well as Maggi Marceline are equally disturbing and tragic. Without JRS, or any organisation that could advocate for and protect the rights of these communities, there would have been no hope. With the assistance of JRS, Maria and Joyce work tirelessly with these women, as they spread awareness and are always available to lend a listening ear. 

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Gushwell F. Brooks
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