In the DRC, community centres help people learn to live again

woman in fish shop
Poor women are opening their own small business ventures—such as this fish fry stall—following UNDP training in small business management. (Junior Kannah/UNDP DRC)

In 2004, a 34-year-old widow in Congo named Maman Miriam* was raped by three armed men who slashed her genitals with a knife, leaving her with physical and emotional scars. She felt completely abandoned and unable to care for her three children.

In 2010, she became one of the first people to benefit from a multifunctional community centre in North Kivu province. The staff of the centre provided psychosocial support to help her heal, in addition to teaching work skills, leadership skills and finance management.

Maman Miriam is just one of many people affected by the conflict that has raged among armed groups in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since the late 1990s. The alarming humanitarian and security situation there includes ongoing attacks against civilians, acts of sexual violence and the recruitment and use of child soldiers. To support and meet the needs of individuals left vulnerable by these protracted conflicts, UNDP has established 12 multifunctional community centres in North and South Kivu provinces, two of the areas hardest hit by conflict.

Highlights

  • Twelve community centres in the two Kivu provinces have provided mediation, literacy classes, financial advice, work-skills training and other services to more than 4,500 people.
  • Of those people helped, 2,000 also joined a community credit union, where they learned about saving money and had access to microloans.
  • The centres’ current budget totals approximately US $1.6 million, with funding primarily provided by UNDP.

Two years after beginning to attend one of these centres, Maman Miriam left the displaced persons’ camp where she lived since the attack and moved to a neighbouring town. By combining her dressmaking skills along with selling local traditional beverages, she is able to pay her rent.

Seeing change

“I see small changes all around me,” she says with pride. “The children are healthy and clean, and they are going to school. I am saving up to buy my own piece of land.”

UNDP proposed this response to violence in 2010, drawing on existing local initiatives already underway in North Kivu. The centres are community-managed and provide mediation, literacy classes and information on women’s leadership and work opportunities. The centres also offer instruction in trades, including cutting and sewing, 
basket weaving, raising livestock, baking and market gardening. Last but not least, the centres are community meeting places.

The 12 UNDP-supported community centres that opened in the two Kivu provinces in the last two years have enabled more than 4,500 people to once again become part of local economic life. After attending education and information sessions, more than 2,000 of them also joined a community credit union, where they learned about saving and can access microloans.

The project can also take credit for the massive voter turnout in the 2011 presidential and legislative elections among women in the town of Burusi in North Kivu. Many of the new voters included women who had just learned to read and write through classes offered in their local centre.

Congolese authorities have since become interested in the UNDP-supported community centres and have incorporated them into the country’s national gender and development strategy. The centres will soon receive a legal status that respects community management while allowing support from the Government.

“I felt worthless,” Maman Miriam says of her past. “I would cry, watching my children dying of hunger. I had no money and my health was destroyed.

“Today, I am alive again. I am proud of myself and I know that I can be independent, make decisions and take action,” she says with a big smile.

*The beneficiaries are all victims of sexual violence and asked not to be identified by their real names.

By Jin-Hee Dieu and
 Florence Marchal, finalists in UNDP's second annual storytelling contest

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