She had never imagined herself campaigning against violence towards women. And yet she is one of the most active champions of women’s rights in the province of South Kivu. Solange Kasiba Ngobobo, a mother of seven children, including three daughters, is the coordinator of IFRAD, a non-profit-making organization that she set up in 2002 in Bukavu to help women benefit from development projects.

I’d started working with vulnerable women, particularly victims of violence, when coming home from my classes one night I met a girl who had been raped and left semi-conscious and bleeding by the side of the road. I was really shocked by this situation

South Kivu Province has the highest rates of violence against women in the DRC, with 12,500 cases of rape recorded in 2005 alone. As well as the trauma of the physical act of rape, most of the victims are often stigmatised and excluded. “I’d noticed that many women were in complete despair because they felt totally disowned,” she continues.

Thanks to ActionAid’s Reducing VAW project, during which she participated in a training course on women’s rights held in Bujumbura in 2007, Solange learned a new approach to dealing with cases of violence against women: an approach based on their rights. From then on, IFRAD concentrated on raising women’s awareness of their rights as the first step in the fight to stop violence against women. Of all the activities implemented as part of the Reducing VAW project in DRC, it is the initiatives on psychosocial support and livelihood activities such as embroidery and sewing skills that have assisted Solange the most in achieving her aim to actively involve survivors of sexual violence in the process of their own development. To date IFRAD has trained more than 67 women in key skills such as dressmaking and soap-making. These women are now able to begin a new life, supporting their families with the income they earn from the trades they learned at IFRAD.

“To begin with I found it difficult to do all this just because I was a woman,” Solange recalls. “The strategy I chose to overcome this problem was to get men involved in my campaign. I started with my own husband. And I can say that I was successful, because he has helped me by financing some of my projects out of his own pocket.”

Solange tells us she is particularly proud of one rape victim she worked with, who was able to overcome the shame attached to her status and shrug off her fears to go and share her story with the US Senate: “Thanks to this woman, the whole world is aware of the atrocities committed on women in the east of DRC,” she comments. When asked what advice she would give to Congolese women and girls wishing to follow in her footsteps, Solange replies: “Just have courage and confidence in yourself. For young girls, I recommend study. Only through education can we restore the dignity of women in DRC.”