Case History: Rebecca Masika Katsuva
Rebecca Masika Katsuva had a heart attack and died on 2 February 2016. For more than 15 years, she helped women victims of rape and their children. She worked in an extremely challenging context. The violence that Masika suffered and witnessed in her own personal life that mirrors the horrific experiences of the community she served.
Rebecca Masika Katsuva was a human rights defender from South Kivu, one of the provinces in eastern DRC with the highest levels of violence. She opened a shelter for women victims of rape, for their children and for orphans. In 2002, Masika set up the organisation Association of Disinherited Persons United for Development (Association des Personnes Desherites Unies pour le Development – APDUD), to help women get medical treatment, make a living and start a new life. Despite the fact she had limited resources, she helped more than 6,000 women.
They called her Mama Masika. Members of her community, residents of a village in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, knew Rebecca Masika Katsuva as a town mother.
In the DRC, where rape is deployed as a war strategy, Masika provided its victims with a safe shelter, and gave the psychological support they desperately needed. She was there to feed them, to listen to them, to protect them, and to give them new hopes. As part of the practical and psychological support Masika provided to rape victims, she took care of their children. She helped survivors stand again on their own feet, and managed day to day life tasks for them while they did so.
Masika had a heart attack and died on 2 February 2016, but she left a legacy that will endure and her courage will not be forgotten.
The violence that Masika suffered and witnessed in her own personal life that mirrors the horrific experiences of the community she served. The unstoppable human rights defender saw her husband being brutally killed, and she herself was raped four times. Masika witnessed the rape of her two teenager daughters and her little sister. She could have - and perhaps did, momentarily - lost hope at many points in her life, but her work for and with the community continued.
“I decided that I had to do something empowering for myself and for other women. To help women move from the state they are in today and reconnect with the women they were before. We wanted to show them that just because they have been raped, this is not the end. They can start again like me. Despite everything I went through, I am still standing and they can do it as well”, said Masika in 2013, during the 7th Front Line Defenders Dublin Platform.
Masika lived in South Kivu, one of the provinces in eastern Congo with the highest levels of violence. Since the first war broke out in 1996, more than six million people have died. Women and children have born the brunt of the conflict: hundreds of thousands have been raped, as sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war to destroy entire villages. Although figures are hard to collect, a study by the Stony Brook University in New York documents that on average 48 women were raped every hour in 2006-7, at the height of the conflict.
After being raped, women tend to be isolated from their communities, as they suffer stigma, discrimination and further abuses. “Most of the women and girls I spoke to at Masika's centre told me the same thing; they had all thought of suicide. They had witnessed and survived terrible things, and then they had been rejected by their families or their communities. Those who had become pregnant still consider murdering their children”, writes Fiona Lloyd-Davies.
Even if she had limited resources, Masika never turned down any request for help: “She provided (the women and the children) with the love, patience and nurturing that they had never experienced before or thought they would never have again. She gave them something more valuable than any therapy: constant love in an environment of fear, violence and insecurity”, writes Fiona Lloyd-Davies, a photojournalist who has told Masika's story in her documentary “Seeds of Hope”.
As Fiona Lloyd-Davies says, “Masika turned her pain and suffering into action”. In 2002, Masika set up the organisation Association of Disinherited Persons United for Development (Association des Personnes Desherites Unies pour le Development – APDUD), to help women get medical treatment, make a living and start a new life: “We support each other, working in the fields and growing food to sell to fund different projects. Some of the girls are too young to go to work the fields, so we teach them to sew. Others have some schooling, so I look after their babies and I send them to school. There is one girl who had a baby when she was in school and now she is in university,” said Masika at the Dublin Platform.
“She was a combination of vulnerability (as a woman in DRC), of strength (because of how she picked herself up) and hope (she was just so positive). I really think she had an impact on all the people she met”, said a staff member of Front Line Defenders who was working closely with the human rights defender.
The life and work of Rebeka Masika remind us that even in the most difficult of situations there is room for hope, as there are people who work for the protection of those around them. That is why the protection of human rights defenders like Rebeka is so important and why she will be so badly missed.