The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been plagued by intense, brutal conflict for more than 20 years. More than five million people have died -- with as many as 1,000 casualties per day, according to some estimates. Sadly, those who survive face collateral humanitarian crises that further threaten their futures -- with girls and young women faring the worst. On their behalf, Salesian missionaries operate two centers dedicated to restoring their dignity and potential.
“Throughout the country, gender-based discrimination exposes girls to horrific -- yet accepted -- violence and exploitation,” says Father Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions. “As a result, they too often become mothers before they become adults, with no social support to ensure their health, teach them essential skills or help improve their circumstances. It’s a heartbreaking cycle that we must find a way to break.”
At both Foyer Annuarite and Maison Marguerite, girls and young women from the northern district of Kivu discover shelter, protection and support. These girls, most of whom are survivors of sexual abuse, can access psychological counseling, life-skills training, self-esteem coaching, parenting classes, recreational opportunities and more. They also receive food and medical assistance for themselves and their babies and, when they are ready, can pursue vocational training in tailoring, culinary arts, hairdressing and more. A microfinance program assists graduates in establishing their own small businesses.
While the fate of the DRC’s girls can often seem hopeless, Salesian missionaries are proud of their early successes.
Take Safari, for example. Having escaped an abusive relationship with her stepfather, she found herself on the streets of Goma -- where she was “courted” by an older man who abandoned her when he discovered she was pregnant. Soon thereafter, at just 17 years old, she was swept up in an arbitrary and cruel police raid that sent dozens of homeless youth to prison. Fortunately, thanks to the intercession of Salesian missionaries, authorities released Safari to Maison Marguerite. Here, she recently gave birth to a healthy son named Baraka (meaning “Blessing”), and is now training to become a professional cook.
Similarly, 16-year-old Justine has discovered her own second chance. Kidnapped by a rebel soldier, held against her will, and assaulted and abused for two months, she had abandoned all hope for a better life. When local officials discovered her, pregnant and in despair, they guided her to Maison Marguerite -- where Salesian missionaries and staff care for her and her baby while Justine works to complete her education.
“Young mothers who are able to go to school, and to learn a marketable skill, are better able to secure financial independence, and make better choices for themselves and their children,” says Fr. Mark. “That’s why a comprehensive approach is so important to their successful rehabilitation.”
For more than 100 years, in wartime and in peace, Salesian missionaries have served the DRC’s most vulnerable populations. Recognizing that the seeds of violence and gender inequality are sewn in poverty and ignorance, Salesian programs like Foyer Annuarite and Maison Marguerite specifically emphasize education. They operate within a holistic framework designed to equip young women with the skills they need to build stable, productive futures -- for themselves, their children and their country.
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