JOCELYNE SACERDOCE SALAMA
EVERY GIRL'S FIGHTER AND CHAMPION
Representation matters. Because it is important for Congolese women who have gone through certain experiences to know that you can rise above it, you can still pursue your dreams, and you can be successful. Your experience does not have to dictate your future. Below we share a story of woman who has used her experiences to better the lives of other girls and women. She is an inspiring and extraordinary young woman. Jocelyne Sacerdoce Salama is founder of des Défenseurs des Droits de la Fille ( Girl Rights Defenders) where she fights for girls in Kivu. She obtained her University degree in Computer Science and a Mandela Washington Fellowship recipient. Jocelyne uses the power of story telling to include survivors of sexual violence in their journey to healing and empowerment.
“When a snake bites you, you wouldn’t want the snake to bite someone else. Your first reflex is to grab whatever is near you, and you cut off its head or tail, and kill it. That’s the same with abuse. If it’s something you experience in your life, and are aware of how it has inflicted you, you would not want anyone to experience it and ever feel how you ever felt. The emotions and turmoils I experience, there was a time I saw myself as insignificant, nothing, and even less than an animal. What I experienced, I would never want anyone to have to go through it. I would do anything, and refocus all of the energy left in, so it never happens to anyone else. Everyone should work on making sure that before it happens, it is prevented.”- Jocelyne
[Tell me about you]
I am born into a family of 5. Four girls and 1 boy. I am an activist and defender of girls rights. I am also the founder of Girls Rights Defenders, and I am very involved in the fight against sexual violence for girls. My vision is to eliminate violence against of women and girls, and not just in Congo but in the rest of the world. I have a lot to say but I don’t know if I should.
[Interviewer: You should. What do you really want people to learn about you, what you do. Why don’t you tell us your story.]
Okay. I want to first talk about why I advocate for girls rights and why I am involved in the struggle for violence against women and girls. I am a rape survivor. That is not a secret to anyone any longer, because I share it anytime I have a chance. I am a rape survivor. I was first raped at age 6. And it really became a part of me that I could never forget. There’s a lot of girls in my family. After me, there’s 3 girls. Having a lot of girls in the house, is something that really bothered my father, because he wanted boys. And so by being a girl, it was a like a curse. My father abused my mother because she kept having girls. He would not even give her money for our food and education. He did not care to struggle for us because we are girls. When I remember everything, we did not receive anything from him, everything was on my mother. So, everything I am today, is thanks to my mother. But I’d like to say today that despite the injustice, the sexual violence, both physical and psychological violence I experience, I rose up.
My story is long but I’d like to tell it slowly, because it’s important.
From the age of 6 years old, I was raped by my cousin. My cousin from my dad’s side, who came to stay at our home while he was on a scholarship study. And you know when no one is home, no one bats an eye because there’s a 6 year alone with their cousin, because they are cousins and there is nothing wrong with that. But that wasn’t the case for me. My cousin seriously beat me and raped me, and then he told me if I told on what he did, he would kill me. I was a little girl, so out of fear, I stayed silent. Afterwards this continued on, and it came to the point where I was even afraid to go in the house to get water to drink while he was in our house. I never said anything to my parents, because everyday they were already fighting. And you know your parents may notice but because of the fear, when they ask if there is something wrong, you stay silent. After a while I really did not see myself as a valued person, and I did not like anyone. Girls or boys, I did not like anyone because I did not believe they had anything to give me. I used to compare myself with an animal, and really thought to myself that maybe I was an animal. Because I was the one getting violated and it was me it kept happening to every time.
At 12/13 years old, I had to go to secondary school (High School) and I did not want to be there. Every time at recess, I would find myself alone crying. I would never know why I am cry, but I was always crying. And when I was asked, I would never tell and they would think maybe it was boy trouble that I was crying. There came a point where I just decided to tell my mother the truth, and I recounted everything. My mother was crushed, and she cried. When she told my father, my father told my mother that she has given him a prostitute child. He then threw my mother out on the street, and became homeless. We had nothing, but after one week, we found our grandmother and went to live with her. After this I did not want to live, I just felt at fault for everything. I asked myself why should I continue and considered suicide more than once because I just felt bad. My mother then decided to share her story, and it was her story that gave me strength to live. And psychologically I was in a very bad place, and it was hard, but at the end I chose to live.
In 2010, I started asking myself how do survivors live after experiencing violence, because it was never laughter, it was always crying. But I met a woman who shared her story with me, and she really impacted and changed my life. And it was then that I decided that I wanted to do the same for others. And on the television I saw stories being told about what was happening in Nord Kivu with a six month old baby being subjugated to sexual violence, and when I made a follow up, I found it to be true. And I think it was then that I really decided to join the fight against such injustices.
And yes, there are many who join the bandwagon to join the fight but for me it is important to remember not to just of fight for her, fight with her. And that’s when I decided to create the Girls Rights Defenders. In this organization we fight against the gender inequalities that exist because parents choose to consider boys for education but not girls. We fight against that and for the rights of girls to be able to pursue their dreams and talents. Per example, if a girl pursues singing, they see her as not a professional just because of her gender. Girls are sometimes seen as ways to bring in money, so parents are only willing to invest if they choose what they should pursue and not necessarily what the girl wants depending on their talents. So it is important to fight for this. It is also important that in this organization we fight against sexual violence as well fight girls who have been past victims of sexual violence. A girl who has experienced sexual violence is really different than other girls, because once you have been violated, you are also given a badge of discrimination from family and society as well. And sometimes girls have had to abandon their education because of their status as survivors of sexual violence once everyone discovers. And this is the same everywhere, you are treated differently because of your status as a sexual violence survivor. In the US it’s the same too. There are girls on the street who should be in school so that’s what I am trying to do. Support them and give them the chance they deserve.
As a Mandela Washington fellowship recipient, I was involved with some project and did an internship. During my time, it dawned on me that Congo is called the rape of the capital of the world, and I asked why is that? Because I know sexual violence does not only happen in Congo. In the United States, it’s worse too. It was a rare experience for me in Congo to encounter father-daughter rapes, but I was shocked to find that this is America’s reality too. You know, this problem is not only Congo’s problem, it a problem that affects the whole world. I used to think that because women have gained respect in America things such as rape were not an everyday occurrence but that was not the reality I learned especially when I was in Pittsburg working with an organization that fights sexual violence against women. I learned so many many women were victims of abuse, and it clicked that this problem really is not just Congo’s problem because it is the same here too. I learned a lot. I even learned that the police is also implicated as perpetrators just like home. So we have to find ways because the violence has to stop.
I always ask myself why I do what I do, but only God knows. You know in Congo it is not easy for someone to just come up and tell you their story. They can experience abuse, and they would just keep it in their heart, and it ends up destroying them but me, I choose to share my story. It is to give courage for the women who are still holding the stories in their heart. It is to give them the courage to get it out, to speak. Yes we say that there is no justice, and yes I agree. BUT We also have to take it in our hands and use whatever resources made available to seek it. When you see you’re given a judge, a policeman that believes you use them. I don’t call myself a victim. Any women that experiences this and lives on, I call them survivors. Because, with all my heart, I would never wish for anyone to have to live my story, and so when you have lived it and are alive, you are victorious. Because in this cases, there is not a lot of support, and that’s why you see girls committing suicide so I make it a point to say, when you see that person still alive, call them a victorious woman, a survivor. When you experience this, you have to ask yourself, do you want to stay the person then or do you want to move forward? Find ways to help you accept your experience, so that you can learn to move forward. We have to break the mentality of silence. Find the courage to speak out. Speaking out only frees you and gives courage to others who are living the same experience. There is no justice when we stay silent. We have to also create environment where women feel protected to speak out.
That is why I decide to tell my story anytime I am given an opportunity to.