More than survival: Music therapy helps Ester overcome sexual violence in DRC

Aug 13, 2021
*Warning: this story contains references to violence against women and sexual assault, which may be disturbing for some people.*

“My husband has been slaughtered.
With many children, I have been left a widow.
Troubles of this world sent me to meet rapists in the field. 
I have cried so much and didn’t know where to go. 
But family has comforted me. 
Friends have comforted me. 
I have found peace.”

Ester’s deep, mournful voice reverberates through the tiny courtyard as she sings her healing song. Her body sways back and forth before reaching up to the sky. As her song ends, she comes back to us, a giant smile erupts, even as her eyes well up with tears. 

“My song de-traumatizes me,” Ester says after attending a music therapy session. “I sing about my suffering for so many days, but also how I can feel better and be cured.” 

Reaching this bittersweet moment is an incredible accomplishment when looking at how far Ester has come. 

“One day I went to the field with a group of women,” says Ester as she shares her story. “We saw seven men wearing military uniforms with guns. They asked us to come to them, but we ran into the forest. They followed us and they told me to take my clothes off, but I said no, I won’t do that. They took me by force and tied my hands behind my back.”

A woman from DRC sits in a wooden chair outside and looks pensive.
Ester suffered rape and the loss of her husband as a result of ongoing conflict in eastern DRC. But with the help of a music therapy program, she's moving beyond survial. Photo: Brett Tarver

Ester lives in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which has been described as the “Rape Capital of the World”. During nearly 30 years of conflict, sexual violence has become a common weapon of war used by armed groups. On average, about 48 females are sexually attacked every hour.

“So they left me there and I went home,” Ester says. “A year and a half later, I felt weak in the body and I went to the hospital. I took a test and found out that I had been infected by HIV during my ordeal.”

Systematic sexual assaults like these devastate not just individual victims, but also their families and entire communities. Ester’s life continued to get worse.

“Just a few days after I learned I had HIV, my husband went to the field because I was feeling very weak and they got him,” she says. “I was left with six children.”

Humiliation, post-traumatic stress and depression as a result of sexual violence have had long-term psychological and societal consequences across the region.

“I could only think of the way my husband was killed and being raped,” says Ester. “I was crying uncontrollably all the time. I could not eat. My body became very thin.”.

Ester’s healing journey

Some women in Ester’s community encouraged her to join a music therapy pilot project that supports women and children who have experienced physical and sexual violence in eastern DRC.

“I am getting a lot of comfort, I feel safe,” she says. “We feel we have friends who treat us as normal people and this really encourages us.”

Women from DRC stand together and sing.
Through music, Ester and others have been able to process their experiences and share their jouney with others. And in the process they find healing. Photo: Brett Tarver

The music therapy sessions follow multiple steps starting with assessments and then talking both individually and in a group. When they are ready, they work closely with a trained therapist and music producer to write lyrics about their emotions and experiences which are professionally produced into songs. The songs are played on local radio and in public concerts by the participants themselves to remove stigmatization in the community.

“Music therapy has healed me. From the advice I am getting here I have found peace,” Ester says.  

Musical healing success

The project that Ester joined resulted in significant changes to the mental health scores of participants, including:  
  • 54% decline in depression
  • 67% decline in anxiety
  • 53% decline in PTSD
Music therapy programs are being scaled up in eastern DRC through the Government of Canada funded EGAL grant implemented by World Vision, Make Music Matter and the Nobel-prize winning Panzi Institute.

Learn more about how you can help people in war-torn DRC and other dangerous places do much more than survive through World Vision’s Raw Hope initiative. 

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