How one young woman is fighting back for change

DR Congo, August 6, 2015

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  • At just 16 years old, Masika has suffered through horrible violence. But now, she's focused on protecting her young daughter, and creating a better environment for other children in DRC. All photos: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

Home for Masika is a small hut made of sticks and covered with tarps. It’s barely big enough to stand up in, yet she shares it with 10 family members — and has for the last seven years.

This is where 16-year-old Masika grew up: Mugunga 3 displacement camp, a sprawling sea of cramped shelters just like hers, on the outskirts of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It’s the oldest of many camps in this area, where Mercy Corps provides clean water and sanitation to keep families healthy.

Mugunga was first established to host refugees from the Rwandan genocide over 20 years ago, and is now home to nearly 5,000 Congolese people who’ve fled the brutal and widespread violence of rebel armies in the countryside.

And this is where Masika is raising her infant daughter, Prefina.

“Everyday is a struggle,” she says quietly while nursing her 3-month-old on the shelter’s only bed. It’s a platform of sharp lava rocks covered only with a thin blanket. “We lay on rocks. We hardly eat. All this time, I have been enduring, but it is very hard.”

DRC is known as the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman, with reports that an average of 1,100 women are raped every single day. Sadly, one year ago, Masika was one of them.

“It happened when I went to get some firewood in the bush,” she explains hesitantly. She and four other girls were attacked by armed men who killed two of them and raped the others. “At this moment, I got pregnant, but I didn’t realize it.”

Like so many people in DRC, this wasn’t Masika’s first encounter with violence. As a child, she and her family fled rebel army attacks on their village in the contentious mining region of Walikale. She remembers bombings and machetes, and running, and then walking for a week to get to the relatively safe haven of Mugunga 3.

“We were in our homes, we lived a good life. We had farms, we had animals. We grew cassava and many different crops and always had enough to eat,” she remembers. “But when we moved to the camp, everything changed. We are living a whole other life. We struggle day by day.”

In this environment, the start of little Prefina’s life was marred by violence, but Masika is determined to give her daughter the best chance at a healthy future. She looks for opportunities to fetch water or sell small goods to make some money and help bring in food for the family.

And the obvious highlight of Masika’s day is when the aspiring nurse goes to the children’s hygiene program that Mercy Corps started in the camp, where she is a leader and teacher. The program is part of how Mercy Corps engages the community, in addition to bringing clean water to tap stands and building latrines.

While adults are part of a hygiene and sanitation committee that manages the facilities, waste removal, and water use throughout the camp, the children’s program brings kids together to learn how to keep themselves healthy and their surroundings safe for everyone through discussions, songs and skits.

“I teach them how to wash their hands, how to maintain sanitation, and how to behave. And I will be able to teach my daughter the same things,” Masika explains.

“The only thing that is good here is that we have clean water and some sanitation [latrines, soap distribution, waste removal programs]. Without the water, people would die. People will just use rainwater for their needs, and that is not clean.”

“But for me, the future of these children will depend on their health and wellbeing. So it is a calling to help care for the children for their good future.”

The future in a place like this is uncertain. But each day that Masika works to protect Prefina and be a positive influence for children growing up here adds up to something better.

It’s vital to have clean water, but it takes remarkable people like Masika to bring hope and strength to Mercy Corps’ work for change, despite the odds.