Valerie* is 16, the mother of a 4-month-old baby, and a victim of rape. When she was just 14 years old, soldiers patrolling the road into town took her by force and sexually assaulted her. Afraid of the stigma attached to rape, she kept it a secret.

In Valerie’s hometown of Bweremana in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), gender-based violence is often regarded as a nuisance instead of a serious and life-altering crime. When Valerie finally returned home, she was too ashamed to tell anyone what had happened, but it soon became obvious that she was pregnant.

People in her town began to mock her, jeering, “Where is the father?” The teasing became so bad that she refused to leave the house.

It is because of girls like Valerie that ADRA operates Ongea, a project named for the literal meaning of the Swahili word ongea: “speak up.” Ongea encourages women to speak up against rape and sexual assault and against the people who perpetrate and condone it. In addition to supporting victims of gender-based violence, Ongea strives to combat the prevailing cultural attitude that enables it.

By creating listening committees comprised of community members, and counseling groups of influential local leaders, ADRA has developed a system to value women and devalue crimes against them. Ongea also spreads awareness through radio broadcasts and cultural activities.

This project has galvanized the women of Bweremana, many of whom feel empowered for the first time in their lives. “I want to combat gender-based violence,” said local listening group member Vomili Ngengeisi. “I want to help girls like Valerie.”

Though still suffering from the trauma of her experience, Valerie has hope that Ongea will continue to speak up against gender-based violence in her community. Of her own future, she is modest: “I dream about finding a husband who will love me.”

*Name has been changed to protect her identity.