Women’s Mental Health and Trauma in the DRC

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The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), located in Central Africa with a population of 86.8 million people, is one of the poorest countries worldwide. With years of war, the destitute country was left with over 70% of the population living on less than $2 per day. Because of the extreme poverty rate, women and girls are especially affected. Many women and girls suffer serious mental health issues due violence, sexual assault, lack of education and trauma. Here is some crucial information about women’s mental health and trauma in the DRC.

Rape and Violence

Rape and violence rates are extremely high in the DRC, which has led the country to be called the “rape capital of the world.” Sexual violence is one of the leading causes of mental issues. On average, about 48 females are sexually attacked every hour, and those that survive are traumatized for life. Girls as young as 2 years old and women over the age of 80 have been targeted.

Unfortunately, many of the perpetrators have been armed groups that work in eastern Congo, many of which are actual members of the security forces in the DRC. Too many times these groups have kidnapped women and girls, frequently harming them with weapons, in which many of the women or girls do not survive from the wounds they receive.

Those who survive are forced to live with extreme trauma. Even worse, many never receive any kind of health care after their sexual assault. According to NCBI, a Congolese health organization called Foundation RamaLevina (FORAL) created a health mobile program and treated about 772 women, with 85% of them being rape survivors. About 45% of the women reported having never received any health care after their sexual assault. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon.

Trauma

Over one million women and girls have been raped in the DRC alone, and often as a weapon of war. Following the survivors of violence and rape is often extreme trauma. The Brogen Project interviewed Dr. J. Douglas Bremner, a physician, researcher and writer, who defined trauma as “a threat to life or integrity for you or someone close to you.” Once these girls are raped and often fear for their life, shame usually follows them, something undeserving as they were forced without consent. Once someone experiences trauma, mentally they are changed forever. Many women and children often experience extremely violent scenes of war and death which can also add or cause trauma.

According to Dr. Bremner, “Brain areas involved in fear response, including the amygdala, hippocampus and frontal cortex, mediated symptoms of increased fear, startle, avoidance and feeling worse at reminders.” Other common mental issues associated with trauma are post-traumatic stress disorder which often inhabits the ability to function properly in daily life. Other disorders include intense fear, sadness, depression, bipolar and even schizophrenia. For young children, “Trauma early in childhood may be associated with more depression and dissociation, but trauma at all ages can lead to PTSD,” according to Dr. Bremner.

Lack of Education

It has been recorded by UPI that UNICEF identified the lack of education as correlated with sexual violence. Poverty is a huge cause for sexual abuse, and a factor for persisting poverty is a lack of education. Unfortunately, almost seven million children aged 5 to 17 have not attended school or had access to proper education. The DRC also does not have a universal primary education system for children due to the years of wars and natural disasters. This obligation falls on the shoulder of the parents, although many cannot afford the costs, which often lead to child labor, assault or forced marriages.

Attacks on education is also a big factor, as it’s not uncommon for militiamen to attack schools and rape the young female students and staff, often abducting the girls or even forcing the young girls to be used as human shields in war. Education is also extremely important in learning to watch out for mental illness that many women and girls ignore.

According to Apa.org, a mother to a young girl who was raped thought her daughter was possessed because she feared everything and remained reserved. Many women don’t know the signs of mental illness, much less what it is. But with the right education, women would learn about sexual health, mental health, how to get help, how to handle it and also how to get out of poverty. Knowledge is power, a resource these women and girls have a right to.

Mental Health Care in the DRC

Although the Democratic Republic of Congo is a larger country in Africa, it is extremely low on mental health facilities. It’s reported that DRC only has about six mental health hospitals and only one mental health outpatient facility. With an already low health budget, the government gives less than 1% of the budget to the mental health department. The open mental health facilities also tend to be expensive which makes it possible for the upper-class citizen to access these resources but near impossible for the impoverished to access them—a right they deserve more than anyone.

The lack of transportation is also a significant problem, as many poverty-ridden families live further in the country and do not have access to transportation to get to the mental health hospitals concentrated in the cities. Plainly put, there is a huge lack of mental health care in DRC.

There are humanitarian organizations fighting to help women and children suffering from trauma and mental illnesses. Organizations like LEAP (the learning for equality, access and peace), FLORAL, UNICEF and many others are addressing women’s mental health and trauma in the DRC by implementing safer and better ways to educate, opening mental facilities, driving medical buses and fighting for more foreign aid.

Katelyn Mendez
Photo: Flickr

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