DRC: Battling for Gender Equality in the Congo

Wednesday, June 29, 2011
The Guardian
Central Africa
Congo (Kinshasa)
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

"The soldiers were calling 'dinner, dinner, dinner'. And we women who were in the forest thought people were bringing dinner for them. It was not that.

"They were calling to signal that it was time to rape women in the forest," says Honorata, a survivor of kidnap, rape and poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where current estimates from The World Bank put the incidence of rape at nearly one per minute or over 400,000 per year.

Extreme poverty forced Honorata to sell salt, soap and other items in the isolated and unstable mining area of Shabunda, South Kivu in eastern Congo, where she was kidnapped by Rwandan rebel forces who illegally control many of the region's mines.

She spent a year in the forest with the Hutu rebels who regularly raped and beat her and the other women they had kidnapped. She eventually managed to escape by walking 300km over a period of a month to the relative safety of Bukavu, a bustling town on the shores of Lake Kivu, bordered by Rwanda.

When Honorata arrived, she was rejected by the community as people coming from the forest were known to be rape victims. Rape is stigmatised in the Congo with survivors often rejected by their husbands and cast out by their communities.

A local pastor took her to Panzi hospital where she was introduced to Women for Women International who run training programmes which teach women about their rights, educate them in hygiene and teach them business skills such as tailoring or cooking.

Honorata says this changed her life.

"From the training, we learnt about how a woman can fight for her rights, we were happy to know that we women, even though we were raped, we still have rights. We are useful to society and our households."

Honorata now works as a trainer for Women for Women International and is able to support herself and three of her children.

Her story is not unusual in eastern DRC, which has been destablised as a result of a decade of war sparked off by the 1994 Rwandan genocide which led to an influx of Rwandan Hutu rebels to the region. The rebels or "interahamwe" continue to wreak terror on remote rural mining villages in particular where physical and sexual brutalities go largely unpunished.

Professor Jean-Baptiste Ntagoma, dean of the economic faculty at the Catholic University of Bukavu, says the shift from agriculture to mining and the fact that men have been killed or fled due to war, has placed a burden on the women of DRC.

"These women are now chiefs of their households. Being responsible for their households, they have to work for the family survival."

Some are forced into prostitution to make a living as they have few other skills.

He says: "If women are so much exploited it is because economically they depend on men. If they could be economically empowered, they could free themselves from this male subjugation."

Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, is the founder of V-Day which - in partnership with the Panzi Hospital Foundation - has built a City of Joy for survivors of sexual violence, many of whom are too poor to move away from the areas where rape is prevalent.

Christine Schuler Deschryver, director of V-Day in the Congo, says: "You have to help to empower the women. When women are not financially independent, then they have to stay. They have nowhere to go."

The City of Joy opened earlier this year and women stay there for six months where they are taught about HIV, family planning, their rights, self-defence and will also receive dance, art and music therapies to help them recover. The centre was built by the Congolese women themselves.

Schuler Deschryver says: "I believe and I trust the Congolese women so much. I cannot even pick up the loads they carried to build it. See how strong they are. We will transform all this pain they have into power.

"Today I know women who go to Dubai to buy clothes and shoes but they started with fish here in Congo."

But she says there is limited scope for real change unless men too are on board.

The City of Joy has a programme called V-Man which will engage Congolese men to join the fight to empower the women of Congo.

WFWI also runs a Men's Leadership programme and Colonel Flammand Baliwa Ngoy, commander of the police in the district of Uvira, has seen the direct impact of this on his own life after receiving this training.

He says: "My wife is a doctor. I said she shouldn't go to work and that she should stay at home and take care of the children. But after this training, I let my wife work as a doctor again.

"There is no man without a woman; the woman is the basis of society."

He has trained 10 men himself and says that 280 policemen in Uvira have now taken part in the programme.

A commander in the Congolese army, Major Gaby Musangi, says the training gave him a new found respect for women.

"Before the training, we didn't have any consideration of women. They were considered like pigs, like objects. In our society a women is given less consideration, less regard than men.

"Beforehand to pay tuition fees for my children, the priority was given to my sons. But today I pay fees for both my girls and boys equally."

One woman who sees the direct correlation between empowering women and lifting them out of poverty is 43-year-old Marie, who was selected to attend a female entrepreneurship course in DRC's capital Kinshasa, sponsored by Goldman Sachs.

After the course, Marie started a small business and saved up enough to buy a plot of land for her and her family.

Smiling broadly, she says: "Our children have good clothing, they eat well, my capital was improved and I've also bought a plot of land where we are going to build a house.

"My husband is also very proud to have a wife who can buy a plot of land for him that he could not afford.

"In the past I was poor but today I am self-reliant. I was ignorant but today I feel free. I will not let any person violate my rights."