New hotline helps families survive abuse in Congo

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Four days after the Congolese government shut down Kinshasa’s pulsating nightlife, her husband knocked out some of her teeth and went to live with his mistress, leaving her bleeding and naked on the floor. Their three children saw it all.

A policy aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus meant that case K1B1 – whose name Reuters is withholding for her safety – had been locked down with her abuser.

“When Marie came to visit me I was still vomiting blood from the beatings,” she told Reuters, referring to Marie Lukasa, who set up Congo’s first domestic abuse hotline a year ago.

During the coronavirus crisis, it’s a service in increasing demand in a country ill-equipped to deal with such abuse.

Lacking funds for a call centre or refuge, Lukasa and a small group of volunteers use their mobile phones as informal hotlines to help families get medical, legal or psychological help.

It’s difficult to gauge how many families in Congo are suffering increased abuse because of the knock-on effects of the outbreak, which has infected 2 297 people and killed 67 in the country.

But the volume of calls to Lukasa’s Forum of Women Citizens and Activists for Governance, Democracy and Development, has exploded more than ten-fold. They used to get five calls a week. Now it’s ten a day, she said.

Many women have low social status in Congo and domestic abuse is often seen as acceptable, even by women, according to Pierre Ferry, head of child protection at the UN children’s fund UNICEF.

Ferry said that with only 2 082 social workers for 84 million people, Congolese authorities are poorly equipped to help survivors like case K1B1.

Movement restrictions, loss of income, isolation, overcrowding and high levels of stress and anxiety are increasing the likelihood that children experience and witness physical, psychological and sexual abuse at home, a group of UN agencies, aid and rights organisations said last month.

“We also want holistic treatment,” Lukasa said, “because we don’t want victims of today to become the rapist of tomorrow.”