In Nigeria, things are different for women and girls

The world’s help is needed to help protect women and girls from terrorists and gangs.

WIDESPREAD PROTESTS: Members of civil society groups in Nigeria protest the abduction of more than 200 school girls in Chibok. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP/GETTY IMAGES


If you go

What: Footprints Foundation’s Literary Jazz Brunch

When: Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Where: Ritz Carlton Hotel, 3300 SW 27 Ave, Miami.

Contact: Lorna Owens: 305-573-8423,

On my very first trip to eastern Congo, I came upon a scene that I have not been able to get out of my head. As I descended from Mwenga, a village high in the rain forest to the beautiful city of Bukuva, lying on the southwestern banks of Lake Kivu, the bodies of five men lay on the side of the road. No one crowded around. Cars drove by. I stopped briefly and seemed to remember saying, “Oh, my goodness.”

I did not cry, I did not become hysterical, I did not take pictures. Someone said, “Let’s get out of here.” That’s what we did. There was no real discussion.

It was then I realized that things were different here. It is through those lens that my Footprints Foundation threads lightly as we work with women and girls who have been raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Our goal is to reduce maternal and infant mortality in a country often described as the worst place on earth to be a woman and to empower women so they can speak for themselves. We also provide clean birthing kits with soap, razors, cord tie and garbage bag for women who have no where else to deliver but on the bare earth.

That is the hard cold reality for women and girls in many countries around the world.

I now sit transfixed — like many around the world — struggling to understand how more than 200 Nigerian girls could be abducted from their school by Boko Haram terrorists. The only ones that appear to be actively looking for them are their parents — some armed only with crude bow and arrows. Their own government took weeks to add urgency to the search and has been slow to accept help from the United States and Great Britain. No State of Emergency was issued.

Sadly, there’s a different reality for women and girls in many countries around the world. They’re seldom a priority to many governments. How else can you explain the almost 2 million women and girls raped, taken as child brides or killed in Congo? The rapes continue on a daily basis.

The women are raped when they go to fetch water, when they collect firewood, when they walk into town, in their homes and at night. No one is safe. Consider: A woman who works at St. Vincent, the small hospital where Footprints works in Bukavu. She went into the village to fetch rape survivors for a meeting with us, and never returned. Doctors eventually learned she was taken from the house where she was sleeping, raped and held captive to become the next wife of the chief. The doctors paid ransom for her and she was released. I see her on my twice annual visits to Congo. I have never known what to say to her. The best I can do is to tell her story here.

Like Nigeria, when the women and girls of Congo are removed from their villages, the government does almost nothing. The families look for the victims but will soon give up and return to their daily lives. Sometimes they cannot even look for their missing family members because they fear reprisal.

Reprisal is real. After Dr. Denis Mukwege, medical director at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, known globally for working with women who have been raped, returned from speaking out at the United Nations against mass rape, armed men awaited him. He barely escaped with his life as the men opened fire. His bodyguard was not so fortunate; he was killed.

Sadly, women in Bakuva and elsewhere believe the world does not care. If they did, they say, aggressive efforts would be mounted to locate rebel leaders from Joseph Kony in Uganda to Abubakar Shekau of Boko Haram in Nigeria and bring them to justice.

I support the efforts to find the girls in Nigeria. I commend the international community for speaking up loud and clear. Such activism makes a difference but only if it is sustained. Boko Haram has been around for 10 years. Of course, our immediate concern is to rescue the girls. Caution is due here; one wrong move and Boko Haram likely will kill all of them. They do not care about how the world thinks of them. They are arrogant, they are angry and they are evil.

I pray that the girls are able to be rescued but after that, we must go further. We must stand with the women and girls in Congo. The rapes of women and girls must stop. Girls must be free to get an education. It is a basic human right. Hence, the school must reopen and the government must dispatch guards to protect students. Finally, we must find the rebel leaders and bring them to justice. Women and girls must matter.

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My activism in Africa began with a single news report and has taken me halfway across the world.

Traditional birth attendants in the Congo. Photo by Marcia Narine

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— Lorna Owens



It started when I watched a TV new segment, an Anderson Cooper piece examining the War on Women. It was a searing exploration of how rape is used in the Congo as a weapon of terror. The report touched me deeply, flooding me with anger and tears — and a resolve to do something.

The very night, I started my research. In the days ahead, I reached out to experts, like Dr. Julia VanRooyen, a Fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and her husband Michael, who does a great deal of work at the Panzi Hospital in the eastern Congo.

I also connected with Kaleba Kasongo, a Congolese woman who, in turn, referred me to Dr. Sylvia Gleason. Originally from Ohio, “Dr. Sylvia,” introduced me to four Congolese doctors doing humanitarian work in their own country.

I began sending money to those on the ground who are laboring in the violence-ravaged country of 71 million.. But I wanted to do more. And that’s how I found myself boarding a 23-hour flight to Africa. My traveling companion was my friend Marcia Narine. We were joined a day or so later by Kasongo, who would be our organizer and translator.

As we prepared to land at Kigali airport in the neighboring country of Rwanda, I became anxious and excited. This was a language and culture I knew nothing about.

After a quick check through customs we found Father Pascal, our host for the night. Then, a lovely supper of goat before retiring to my room and resting up for the trip into the Congo.

The border of the eastern Congo is sheer chaos. People beg for money; they offer to carry your bags for a fee. Bike taxis jostle for passengers. There are soldiers with guns everywhere. The magnitude of what I had gotten myself into was beginning to settle in.

Our driver, Virginia, whisked us away through the chaos along dusty, bumpy streets covered with lava and gray ash, remnants of the Nyiragongo volcano that devastated the area in 2002.

Finally, we arrived at Maji Matulivu, a beautiful, heavily guarded guest house.

The next day, Dr Joseph Muyuma and Dr Alfred Mwenebatenda of Project Congo Alliance took us to see a little house they had converted into a hospital. Doctors there make less than $500 per month and often go without a salary.

And we got to meet Philomene. One of the joys of visiting the Congo was actually getting to meet the people we were trying to help. Philomene is a young girl who was gang-raped when she was 15 years old. She has a little daughter as a result of the rape. This is where our dollars had been going — $28 per month for their care. As we pulled up outside of her home, the whole village seem to descend upon us. Philomene ran and hugged me.

“Mama Lorna!” she called out. We hugged and cried.

We also we met with some traditional midwives; many are both untrained and illiterate.

They are afraid they might contract AIDS so they ask if we can provide them with gloves so they do not have to do deliveries with bare hands.

One woman told her story of being raped. All I could do was listen. I just could not find the words to tell her I was sorry. We learned women are gang-raped in their homes, or when they leave to collect firewood or fetch water. They are raped in public; they are raped in front of their families. The fact that they might be pregnant doesn’t matter. Age doesn’t matter. The youngest victim was a 3-year-old toddler; the oldest was a 90-year-old grandmother.

We also visited a refugee camp and clinic in Sha Sha. The clinic barely has any medicines, and many of the victims have died. All Souls Episcopal Church, Miami Beach, provided the clinic with a generator.

Our next stop was a three-hour boat trip to North Kivu to meet Dr. Philemon Kakisingi and Dr. Jeff Mibi from St Vincent Hospital. The hospital is overcrowded, with multiple patients often sharing a twin bed. There are over 150 women waiting to have reconstructive vaginal surgery as a result of the horrific gang-rapes.

The trip we took to see the mines in Shabunda will live with me forever. The rebels control the mines in this area. These mines are used in the cell phones and laptops that make our lives more convenient. Many question, in light of the rebels’ hold on the area, whether we shouldn’t be obtaining those minerals from someplace else.

The trip to Shadunda was different from all our other trips. We changed drivers. We needed someone who was born in the area and familiar with the dangers. We left at about 6 a.m., to get to the mines and back before dark.

At each village, we stopped and visited with the chief. We would always leave a small monetary gift for the village. It was a humanitarian gesture but it also allowed us access and safety. I knew we could easily be killed. Rebel soldiers were everywhere. They were young and they looked angry. The soldiers are not paid.

“They kill, they rape and they take our food,” the villagers told us.

Inch by inch we made our way up the mountains and as we finally turned a corner we saw something magical, hundreds of women in beautiful African dresses. Once they saw us they started singing and chanting. Neither love or suffering have only one language, I understood it all.

Suddenly we looked up and saw several trucks with UN soldiers. The UN commander wanted to speak with us. He wanted to know who we were. Why were we there? He made it clear he did not want any trouble. “We are peaceful people,” I told him calmly. “We are only here to help the women of the Congo.”

The women waited patiently for us. Once we rejoined them we understood the significance of our visit. At this very spot in 1998, 13 people were buried alive. We cried and we hugged; I promised the women we would tell their stories. I also promised them we would provide surgery for the women who have been raped, and to set up a midwifery training program so their women would no longer die in child birth.

On the way back, we encountered another horror. Lying on the ground like road kill were five bodies — the carnage of a massacre on the village the night before.

I wondered who they were and how long they were lying there. Would they have a decent burial?


The author is the founder and executive director of Footprints Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to saving women’s lives “one footprint at a time.” She is a former Miami-Dade prosecutor and a former registered nurse and midwife.

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We return to the Congo Oct. 1-12, to start our first training program for midwives. The curriculum is been developed by Dr Mary Jo O’Sullivan, Dr. Nahida Chakhtoura, and Jamile Munajj-Brown, a local midwife. Our goal is that in five years we can turn this program over to our Congolese partners.

We need help in raising the $50,000 needed to start the program. Donations can be sent to Footprints Foundation 4000 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Suite 470, Coral Gables, Fl. 33146 or online at We are also looking for doctors, nurses and psychologist to join our team

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