DRC Congo – Reducing abortion stigma among internally displaced persons (IDPs): a meeting for women in Bulengo IDP Camp, Goma   

On 9 May we held an information session on abortion stigma reduction at our office, which focused on 40 women and young girls from Bulengo IDP Camp in Goma. The participants were chosen from various sections of the camps so that some 60% of the camp areas were represented by someone who could share accurate information about abortion with women and young girls, and help and direct anyone with an unwanted pregnancy to a service provider.

Because abortion is criminalised and is one of the sensitive issues which are negatively perceived in Bulengo IDP Camp, we held this information session in our offices, where women could feel safe to discuss and express their views freely. This involved arranging transport, which we funded for the participants. The session was an interactive learning forum where the participants got information from others; it also served as a networking opportunity.

Why Bulengo?

Earlier this year, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) published a report which indicated that over 627 women had said they were victims of sexual violence in just one month. Bulengo is one of the IDP Camps where the security is better, and in which people are now more stable, that is, no longer on the move. But being located in Goma Division, Bulengo IDP camp is facing challenges related to accessing firewood for cooking.

Objectives 

– To provide accurate information to IDPs about safe abortion and available services;

– To establish community focal points in Bulengo IDP Camp which should support IDP women who want an abortion,

– To reduce deaths and health complications caused by unsafe abortion.

Discussion in the meeting

Women talked about their experience of how they have been stigmatised in the community. The definition of abortion and of stigmatization generated discussion among the participants, who shared the consequences they experienced from unsafe abortion. IDP women were isolated from services and did not have access to information about abortion, especially safe abortion. Once IDP women decide to have an abortion, they are victims of abuse, rejected, excluded from community activities, and discriminated against. They cannot get married and they are sexually abused, which community members not only tolerate but also praise a man who sexually abuses a woman who has had abortion.

The moderator of the session, Florence, discussed with the participants in a simple way the meaning of stigma at the community level and encouraged them to discourage all forms of stigma.

The women described the challenges they are facing to access abortion, and blamed the government for criminalising women who seek abortion, the lack of awareness programmes on safe abortion and the absence of health services specialising in abortion provision.

They argued that there are two types of abortion:

– The first is recommended by medical personnel due to health complications, not based on women’s choice. This type is considered very okay and there is no problem with it, even though some men of God do reject it also and encourage women to come for prayers until they die.

– The second type are those provoked by the woman herself, when she does not want to continue the pregnancy. This is more difficult because it is not allowed and if the police catch them, they can be arrested. The women argued that the main reasons for unwanted pregnancy were mainly when they were raped by rebels, and also due to the harsh living conditions in the camps. The participants said they fear to go to the hospital because they think the doctor will either report them to the security services or to religious leaders — and unfortunately most of the health centres are religious institutions, where it is most difficult to seek abortion. Henc, the only option is an unsafe abortion, which also has many negative consequences.

Resolutions

The participants made the following resolutions to share with others in their communities:

– To inform others what they have learned about abortion stigma and the necessity to seek safe-abortion, and share this information with others who are close to them in the camp;

– To create awareness among others to avoid unsafe abortion and help them to get accurate information about abortion;

– To reduce chances of sexual exploitation and empower women on sexuality;

– To initiate regular awareness activities for IDP women in the camp and come up with activities that focus on other members of the community;

– To follow-up cases of women who have had problems with unsafe abortion;

– To provide legal assistance for women who are criminalised due to unsafe abortion and the necessary psycho-social services for rape survivors.

IDP Camp staff support 

– Capacity building for our staff members who are involved in this project,

– Capacity building for community women who are our focal points in their communities,

– Putting in place legal assistance and psychosocial support for women,

– Link this project to other projects which are related to sexual and gender based violence, sexual and reproductive health and rights and HIV/AIDS,

– Mobilise the necessary funding opportunities,

– Identify and partner with service providers, especially those who can provide safe-abortion.

SOURCE: Report by Florence Mapatano, COJESKI North Kivu, DRC Congo, 16 May 2024