21 May 2009

Stella Mpaka, of Women Against Rape, is now helping others to overcome their personal nightmares.

Your article (Camden group's battle to prioritise a heinous crime, H&H April 2) showed some of Women Against Rape's (WAR) ground breaking work winning justice for rape survivors. I can personally testify to the life-saving support provided to women like me.

I am a rape survivor from Rwanda. My family fled because of the genocide. We later returned thinking it was safe, but in 2000 my father 'disappeared' and my family fled again.

In fear for my life I paid a man to bring me to the UK to seek asylum. I was raped by the truck drivers who gave me a lift and in the UK by the man who arranged my 'safe' passage.

By the time I met WAR my asylum claim had been refused. WAR was outraged that my lawyer had not told the authorities about the rapes because I wouldn't be believed. They helped me document everything, pressed my new lawyer to include it in my appeal, and kept me going through every hurdle.

My daughter, born after the rapes, suffers from a painful, life-threatening disease. For the seven years it took to win my right to stay, I lived with the terror that we would be sent back to persecution and to her almost certain death, as there is no medical help for her condition in Rwanda.

Before WAR I went to many groups. They treated me like a victim whose views didn't count. Their help was limited and so was their effectiveness.

When I found out that most rapists in Britain are allowed to get away with it, I was surprised. I didn't know that the uncaring injustice we face from the immigration authorities mirrors what British women face from the criminal justice system. For WAR every rape survivor is central to fighting her own case.

Asylum seekers or British, we all want the justice and safety we are entitled to. Working together, we gain strength and skills, and the confidence that we can win.

Now I volunteer with WAR and the All African Women's Group, both based at Crossroads Women's Centre. In the absence of adequate assistance from established asylum organisations and lawyers, we run daily self-help sessions. I co-ordinate a session and help women like me with their cases.

Women from many countries have been raped by soldiers, but their suffering is dismissed. Rape is treated as an individual man's actions rather than an integral part of the violence organised by governments to destroy women's resistance to poverty, dictatorship and corruption. Women are the primary carers in every society, the bedrock of the community and of any struggle for survival and change.

At Crossroads, we get daily calls from women in detention. Mothers are particularly desperate. A single person, faced with inedible food or lack of medical care, will suffer in silence. But for a mother locked up with a sick or hungry child, it is unbearable.

Often English is not our first language. This is used to demoralise us and undermine our efforts. I've had to complain about the racism of some agencies: unavailable when they hear my African accent but miraculously helpful when my English colleagues call them.

WAR's achievements include:

  • Expert reports assessing the effects of Rape Trauma Syndrome.
  • A legal precedent established that women may have been too traumatised to report rape, and are therefore entitled to present this "fresh evidence".
  • A rape survivor won £38,000 compensation for illegal detention.
  • Research exposed discrimination of immigration officials, judges and even lawyers against women who have been raped.
  • A Rights Sheet for Rape Survivors Seeking Asylum distributed free to hundreds of women, including those in detention.
  • Our expert testimony was used in guidelines on rape and trauma for UK health services.
  • We have stopped removals, often at the last minute.
  • Mothers reunited with children left behind when they fled to the UK.

We are sustained by a team of unwaged volunteers and public donations. The only funding we presently get is two small grants from international bodies.

Yet, whenever the public hears how traumatised women who have survived war, rape and genocide, and suffer the daily agony of being separated from children and other loved ones, are treated in the UK, they react with compassion and offers of help. The heart-warming response from pupils and staff during our visits to Camden schools is testament to that.  Unlike most politicians and media people, they identify with our children left motherless. Such compassion gives us courage and hope.