Justine was just 16 years old when she was kidnapped, tortured and held against her will by a rebel soldier in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Two months later, pregnant and afraid for her life, Justine sought help from Goma’s Division of Social Affairs. Now, she and her beautiful new baby live peacefully at Maison Marguerite -- a Salesian shelter where young mothers find the protection and support they need to begin their lives anew.
Maison Marguerite is a program borne out of desperate necessity. DRC’s long history of military and civil unrest, combined with pervasive poverty and gender-based violence, means that the country is among the worst in the world for women. In fact, according to human rights groups, sexual abuse is a heartbreaking matter of course in DRC: an estimated 40 percent of women and girls have experienced such horrors, often at a very young age. Human trafficking -- another pervasive issue -- exacerbates the situation.
“So many girls in DRC become mothers while they are still children themselves,” says Father Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions. “It is not their intent, nor their wish; yet suddenly, they have a fragile life to care for with no resources to do so. This is one of the biggest reasons why the country is trapped in an unending cycle of poverty.”
The Salesian missionaries at Don Bosco Ngangi in Goma established Maison Marguerite for this very reason. “To help our country develop, mothers must be literate, healthy and self-sufficient,” explains Father Piero Gavioli, director of Don Bosco Ngangi. “We help them achieve all three, so that they may live independently and raise literate, healthy children.”
Maison Marguerite is a small compound of brightly-painted bungalows comprising a school, overnight housing and community space. More than 20 girls, like Justine, live at the shelter, while many others visit during the day -- attending vocational courses in tailoring, culinary arts, hairdressing and more. All of the young women have access to psychological counseling, life-skills training, self-esteem coaching, parenting classes, recreational opportunities and more. They also receive food and medical assistance for themselves and their babies. Those who stay on the compound learn to live cooperatively and support each other’s growth and development.
After being referred to Maison Marguerite by the Division of Social Affairs, Justine could -- for the very first time -- envision a brighter future for herself and her child. “The staff cares for us so well,” she says, “and now I have the chance to return to school and even learn a trade!”
Fr. Piero prays that, one day soon, Maison Marguerite will have the resources to expand, in order to meet the continued high demand for its services. “We are overwhelmed by requests for assistance,” he says, “and we don’t want to turn any of these young mothers away.”
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