Meet Thérèse Mema Mapenzi
Thérèse Mema Mapenzi works tirelessly to help survivors of horrific sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
(Above: Thérèse and SCIAF Ambassador Lorraine McIntosh in DR Congo in January 2020)
Thérèse is the Director of Centre Olame Bukavu, a Catholic Women’s Organisation, supported by SCIAF that provides psychological support to women who have endured unimaginable crimes. Thérèse was born in the city of Bukavu in the Eastern DRC, where there have been a series of brutal conflicts and an epidemic of sexual violence against women.
"I started as a social assistant as a psychologist. My job was to listen to the stories of women and then bring them to a psychologist. But as I listened to the stories of conflict and sexual violence, I found the psychologist would often just write them a prescription and send them on their way.
For me this was not a perfect way of working, so I gave my time to these people, I listened to them to discuss how I could help, to find out what their needs were.
Years later those same people came to me and said "I was very grateful for what you did for me. I wanted to kill myself but from the time I met you things changed and my life improved.”
Later she worked with the Archdiocese of Bukavu Justice and peace Commission, managing trauma centres.
"Because of the wars, there were so many people affected by the trauma caused by conflict and sexual violence. My job was to go to villages, raise awareness and bring people to hospital and trauma centres and to listen to them. Often women who had experienced rape were not able to talk about the trauma they had endured, so they kept this to themselves. Many took to self-harm and became heavily tormented. So we worked with them, listened to them, helped them rebuild their lives."
Now she heads of the Archdiocese’s Olame Centre, which brings that work across the whole region.
"I was only dealing with few parishes before, now I deal with the whole archdiocese, working with women, helping them become strong enough to fight for rights and have food security."
The biggest challenge for women in Bukavu, especially women affected by sexual violence is that when they are victims of any kind of violence, they are a triple victim. They are the victims of the crime itself, they are victims of a culture that judges and discriminates against them and they are often victims of their own families, who force them to be keep quiet as they too are afraid of being judged.
Despite this, she is continually astonished by the resilience and strength of the women she works with.
"There were women I was working with in intervals, they told me their stories and after a while, I could see them fall again into secondary trauma. So I decided to bring them together so they could share the stories and grow together. All these women had different problems, HIV, children born of rape and physical handicaps. Yet they were all able to learn with each other and help each other, and together they made incredible progress."
Despite her successes, she admits that her work is incredibly hard.
"Sometimes I feel I am not strong enough to help people, they come to me when they have gone through so much but I try to do what I can and I pray."
People also come to me and say thank you ‘you helped me to become strong.' This helps me to go on.Thérèse Mema Mapenzi