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Can microfinance programs heal rape victims in Congo?

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(Read caption) A woman reacts as she carries food stuff at the village of Walikale, Congo, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2010. According to aid workers, crimes like rape have been used as a brutal weapon of war in Congo, where conflicts based on tribal lines have spawned dozens of armed groups amid back-to-back civil wars over many years.

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There are so many bits of reporting that never make it out of my notebooks, so many interesting things I learn that I can’t use in the space I have. Sometimes, one of those bits just keeps pestering me. Right now, it’s this one.

Earlier this year, I did a pretty massive report on the use of rape as a tool of war, for Congressional Quarterly Press’ Global Researcher (subscription). I talked at length with Desiree Zwanck, the gender advisor at Heal Africa, a hospital in Goma, eastern DRC, about how women recover from rape. I thought we’d talk about medicine and social stigma. Instead, we talked about money.

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Not exclusively. But the most interesting thing I learned from Zwanck was this: Micro-credit programs were doing the kind of work usually attributed to psycho-social counseling. They restored women’s sense of self-worth. They bolstered women’s respect in the community. They returned women, in their own homes, to productive partners in their families. Zwanck told me, “A lot of families here are in such dire need that they are actually more inclined to accept the woman back into the household when there is an economic incentive for it.”

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I can feel the well-intentioned, anti-neo-colonial, pro-feminist bile rise, but hold on a second: This is not one of those moments where things look all rosy but when you peel back the Otherness, you’re appalled at all the theoretical sins being committed. Micro-credit works in part, Zwanck said, because it accepts how Congolese women view themselves.

“Of course from a Western perspective, you’d say this actually reduces the woman again to just a material gain, [something] a family can get out of her. It focuses on her productive capacity and not on her value as a human being,” Zwanck acknowledges. “But…their perception of themselves is not so much individual as it is part of their families, and of their vision of their families. When you say how has this micro-credit helped you, they will say, “Well, my children…” – they will talk about other people.”

Okay, I’ll slow down a minute: “works” by what metric? That’s a good question. I wasn’t doing M&E on Zwanck’s micro-credit program. I don’t know the loan return rate, I don’t know how many businesses stay open for how long, I don’t know how many men steal their wives’ money. But what I liked about what Zwanck had to say is that the point of the micro-credit, in our conversations, wasn’t any of those things. It was actually the “psycho-social needs of rape survivors,” a phrase you’ll see all over reports from the region, and sometimes in news stories, and one which I often find on its own stultifying and objectifying. But micro-credit wasn’t any of those things; it was, to borrow another overused word, empowering.

Jina Moore is a reporter who blogs at