Facing Rape Where Survivors Need The Most Help

This post is part of our month-long series featuring Greatest Women of the Day, in recognition of Women's History Month.

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Amy Ernst is drawn to a subject that makes most people turn away.

Determined to confront the issue of rape where the survivors needed the most help, Amy moved to an active conflict zone in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where frighteningly common attacks destroy the lives of countless people, from 4-year-old girls to 73-year-old women.

Amy said she has always been passionate about the issue, especially after a relative was sexually abused by someone they both knew.

"It was pretty painful to watch someone with such a beautiful and vibrant personality almost completely destroyed," said Amy, 24. "Sexual violence seems to have a power like nothing else to cause someone to lose sight of their self-worth and their trust in other people."

And it touches everyone, she added. "I don't think I know a single person who doesn't know someone who was raped or sexually assaulted," said Amy. "It's incredibly common."

As with many conflict zones around the world, in parts of the Congo, rape is a weapon of war. Women, children and sometimes men caught in the protracted conflict in the central African country are subjected to harrowing sexual violence, then left to live with the consequences in a country with few avenues to healthcare and a culture where the victims are often blamed.

Amy works with Coperma, one of very few services available to survivors. As soon as they hear about clashes in the villages surrounding Butembo, where it is based, Coperma rushes out pick up survivors and take them to a clinic that offers free medical services and counseling.

Coperma also works to get survivors on their feet, offering everything from a school for girls who have to stop attending when the attacks result in pregnancy, to vocational training for women -- many of whom are displaced or shunned by their families after they are raped.

Amy found out about the rape epidemic in the Congo while working as a rape crisis counselor in Chicago, Ill. She attended a show that raised awareness on the issue.

"It was during a performance of the Vagina Monologues, it was the last story." The Congo, she found out, was the place with the greatest need. With the help of a relative who knew a priest in the region, she moved to the country, and lives with the Crosiers, an order of priests and monks in Butembo.

Amy said one of the most frustrating aspects of her work was the fact that most of the rapists in the region were government soldiers, and they were rarely brought to justice. Furthermore, justice often comes at a price. "Just to have the guy in jail one day can cost $20, almost a whole months salary here," she said. Victims have to bear the cost.

But, she said, the people she works with give her hope: recovering survivors who are helping other victims, husbands who go out of their way to support their wives, and the women who refuse to give up their sense of self-worth.

And there's Maman Marie Nzoli, who started Coperma in 1983 to help develop local agriculture. When the war hit, the needs of her community drastically changed. Coperma now works to get the lives of victims of war back on track. "She just keeps going, even when she's really seeing the worst of things," said Amy.

"She has seen people raped on the road from a car, and then gone back after the soldiers ran off and helped the women into the car," she added. "You can tell sometimes she gets a little discouraged that the war is just going to continue, but then she continues as well."