W4 is proud to feature an interview with Jocelyne Sacerdoce, Founder of “Girls’ Rights Defenders”. Jocelyne is an extraordinary woman who fights daily to empower and give voice to survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
What prompted you to start “Girls’ Rights Defenders”?
My experiences as a child motivated me to start the group. I grew up facing constant discrimination in all aspects of my life because I was a girl. My father, who was disappointed because his first-born was a girl and not a boy, refused to help me get an education. My mother was constantly beaten because she only gave birth to girls.
I am also a survivor of rape. We don’t choose to be raped. When I was 6 years old, my cousin and his friend raped me, and because of that I was thrown out of the family home. I made several suicide attempts and then one day I met a woman who became one of the most important people in my life. She was a survivor of rape, too. She really opened my eyes and helped me to understand that although I had suffered intense trauma, my healing process had already begun. That’s when I decided I wanted to live. Of course, I hadn’t completely overcome the mental and physical trauma, but I was able to put my experience into words. I learned that, often, “the way forward is with a broken heart.”
I couldn’t sit at home and do nothing, knowing what so many girls are going through in their homes and communities. That’s how I came to the idea of creating a network of women activists committed to defending girls’ rights.
Can you please tell us about the mission, objectives, and activities of “Girls’ Rights Defenders”?
Our mission is to promote gender equality and to protect girls’ rights.
Our immediate aim is to promote Congolese girls’ empowerment. We also have several specific objectives:
- Inform girls about their rights and the ways they can protect their rights
- Promote gender equality
- Combat all forms of violence against girls
- Promote peace and development
- Promote the empowerment of girls to help combat sexual exploitation and poverty
- Fight against the impunity of abusers
- Promote girls’ education
To achieve these goals, the group has developed several programs, including:
- Advocacy and Lobbying
- Combating sexual violence against girls
- Women’s empowerment
- Practical support for survivors of sexual violence who have been rejected by their families
- Psychological support for survivors of sexual violence
What are your ambitions, both personally and for the association?
I would like to play a role in combating – even completely eradicating – sexual violence against girls, and I hope to achieve this by involving survivors of sexual violence. The survivors themselves are the ones who really know how damaging sexual violence is – and they are the first to want to put an end to such violence. I would also like to help girls under 15 to become activists and enable them to defend their rights. For this, they need to study at school because it’s only by getting an education that they can really determine their own futures.
How many girls suffer from sexual violence every year, in your region?
It is estimated that nearly 1,150 girls are raped every day in the DRC. This of course, is only counting the girls who speak up about their trauma. Unfortunately, I imagine there are thousands of others who are too afraid to come forward.
What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced? How have you overcome them?
We face two major challenges: given the large number of victims and our limited resources, we are not able to help all those in need. Also, victims of sexual violence do not easily speak up. Out of fear and shame, they often choose to stay silent.
To change this, we spend a lot of time sharing our own stories. It gives victims of sexual violence the courage to speak up and denounce their attackers. Sharing our own experiences is also a source of hope for other girls and women.
What part of your work do you find most important?
The most important part of my work is sharing my own story, in order to give hope to other girls and women who have also suffered sexual violence. It is also a very important part of my work to involve local judges and magistrates in the fight against impunity.
How can individuals, organizations and/or businesses support the work of “Girls’ Rights Defenders”?
We really need more resources, so individuals, organizations, and businesses can help by providing financial support, technical support, and equipment, here. If there are people who wish to volunteer with us to help victims of sexual violence, we would be more than happy to welcome them to our team. Thank you!