Congolese staff member from Femmes en Action Pour le Developpement Intégré, FADI, in Kiliba, South Kivu. Photo: Ida Udovic, The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been named the worst place on earth for women to live in. Rape, murder, violence and acid attacks have become a part of women’s everyday life, from the beginning dominated by poverty and traditional role models. Nevertheless, the world mostly gives the Congo and the Congolese women’s fate the cold shoulder. But a group of Congolese women discovered the internet as a tool to make their voice heard.
The war and the post-war years in the DR of Congo have cost about five million people their lives – thus making it the deadliest conflict in the world today and even the deadliest of the past half-century. This number is not only brought about by bombs and bullets, but also from preventable diseases and starvation. But the death toll and destitution is mostly met with silence by the rest of the world, despite the fact that we live in a world with unprecedented possibilities of access to information and high levels of attention and resources being devoted to foreign affairs.
“What …[came] as a surprise was the resounding silence with which the revelations of the conflict’s unparalleled scale were met: from policymakers, the media, the public and academia alike. It seemed that no matter how large it was, or how high the death toll became, the conflict simply could not elicit a serious response from the world outside the region,” writes Virgil Hawkins, assistant professor at the Global Collaboration Center at Osaka University, Japan, in his book ”Stealth Conflicts: How the World’s Worst Violence Is Ignored”.
If a country – as large as two-thirds of the size of Western Europe – can be blanked out in public awareness, then how must the situation be for those in the country, who are marginalized in the first place? For those, who traditionally have no chance of making their voice heard, for those who suffer most under the circumstances? If there is little awareness about the DR of Congo, then there’s even less about the situation of the Congolese Women. Their fate is mostly consigned to oblivion, supported by the fact that the country has little to no communications infrastructure.
Discrimination, the lack of security with a high risk of being subjected to various forms of violence, illiteracy and poverty effect and shape Congolese women’s lives profoundly. The war has also destroyed the life-sustaining structures, and women as the traditional foundation, upon which all family and community structures rely, bear the brunt of this.
Furthermore, rape was systematically used as a weapon of war, and the rate of sexual violence is still very high.
A study from 2011 estimates that about 1.8 million women in the Congo aged 15 to 49 have experienced rape, which means that approximately 1,152 women are raped every day, or 48 every hour, or four women every five minutes. It is not without a reason that the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence has dubbed the Republic of Congo “The rape capital of the world”.
Raped women will not only carry the trauma of rape with all the results for their mental and bodily health throughout their lives, if they survive, but raped women traditionally are condemned to a life with the stigma of dishonor and are often cast out by their families or abandoned by their spouses.
Rays of hope
But there are rays of hope, changes that might come about thanks to some women’s initiative and the internet!
Neema Namadamu, a woman from the Eastern Congo, belongs to a marginalized tribe and is crippled from polio. But, as she writes, “none of those things characterize me. I have a vision for my country that compels me, and its destiny is driving me. It’s big, maybe improbable, but not impossible. For I have learned that making the impossible possible, simply requires a different set of rules.”
In July 2012, together with the action media network World Pulse, Neema gathered over 200 grassroots women leaders from her region to talk about the future of their country and to host workshops, training the women in the use of media with the aim of empowering them and giving them a global voice. The group call themselves “Maman Shujaa”, the Hero Women.
From their local internet café, with twelve computers that take ten minutes to load one page, the women report about their lives in the war-torn region, share their visions of change and connect with a global network of supporters, for example with women from Liberia, to exchange experiences. According to Neema Namadamu, they use World Pulse’s online forum “as a beginning platform to mobilize, enlighten, and engage a leadership group for future gender rights activities.” This project is also a first step to close a media gender gap, as Congolese women normally don’t have access to media.
No silence anymore
Women have finally a possibility to make them heard. This silenced country is not so silent anymore! Having lived for so many years being silenced, with the fear of the worst and no help to expect, they now can share their story and try to activate the world.
Maman Shujaa-member Riziki Bisonga shares her experiences of violence:
“Domestic violence like what I experienced in my own home is widespread. I recall the horrible story of the fate of a child in my community. When a mother went to get water – which is an arduous task here in DRC – the father raped his 9-month-old child and then ran away. The mother returned to find her child crying and full of blood.”
While Ruhebuza Vumilia Jeanette calls for action:
“Let us raise a cry to people of good will so that they will support literacy and access to schools. Let us awaken society’s conscience to ban outdated customs. Let us encourage churches to invest more in education and instruction to loyal patrons. Let us cry out to those who are able to give scholarships for the strengthening of female leadership.”
The group also used their newly found voice to author a letter to the female leaders at the White House, asking Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama for their solidarity and for support for a real peace process in their homeland:
“We have had enough. We call upon our global sisterhood to take action. We will not be quiet until REAL Peace is upon us… And, it is essential that any action ensures Congolese women – who are uniquely positioned to act on behalf of family and community – have a voice in the peace process and a seat at the table.”
Being asked what she wishes for her country, a Congolese women answered: “To all the different countries of the world, open your eyes and ears so you can see and hear the women of the Congo.”
The Hero Women have launched an online petition headed to the White House that has garnered well over 100,000 signatures by now. You can sign this petition here to support them in their struggle.
Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation / Johanna Wassholm
Today, parliamentary elections are hold in Jordan. When it comes to women’s political representation everything can only get better, as there is not one woman in the present provisional government.
Today’s elections are early elections, King Abdullah II dissolved the parliament last fall, a common phenomenon in Jordan politics. According to the new election law, which is the result of two years demands for reform, are 15 of the 150 seats in parliament reserved for female candidates. This is an increase of three seats compared to the last election in 2010 and can be regarded as a tiny success. At the same time the total number of seats in parliament has increased, so the quota of 10 percent is still the same. The women’s rights movement in Jordan is not content with this low number and, since the last election, has been calling for 30 percent of the seats should go to women.
There is hope for a few more women to get into parliament after today’s election, as two women are number one on their respective parties lists and a couple more women have a chance of getting enough votes of their own to be elected. The number of women to stand for election is higher than ever before. Out of about 1400 candidates, 215 are women.
Family voting is common
But even if women will be represented with more than 15 percent in the parliament after the election, the view on women as political actors won’t change over night. Many still think that politics is off-limits for women and neither men nor women vote in a larger extend for female candidates. The so-called family voting is also common in Jordan, especially outside the capital Amman.
Layla Hamarne from The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s partner organization ‘Arab Women’s Organization’ works for advocating women’s political participation. She doesn’t believe that many women will decide for themselves for whom they will vote. “I think it is very uncommon for women to vote independently, except for intellectuals and people in the bigger cities, “she says.
It is the paterfamilias, safeguarding the families’ or the clans’ interests, who decides whom the rest of the family shall vote for. The lack of possibility to vote independently makes it difficult for women to vote for candidates who want to strengthen women’s power and influence in society.
The big question is though: Will this play a role? Discontentment is widespread amongst voters as well as political parties. The claim for political reform has been loud since the Arab Spring started to spread two years ago, and even though there are some changes for the better, the situation is still far from being satisfying for the majority of the population. There was only a minimal response to the demand of a modernized and more democratic electoral law, and therefore some opposition parties boycott the election, amongst them the influential Muslim Brotherhood and some leftist parties.
A low voter turnout is expected; in Amman no more than 30 percent of the voters are anticipated to show up at the poll places. In public opinion, the candidates are the same who have been sitting in parliament for many years. Many corruption cases, apparently an inevitable part of the Jordanian power structure, chipped away at their reputation and they are not regarded as being able to bring about change. ‘They are all corrupt’, is a usual statement. Few people think that a new parliament will do something against the high living costs in the country or widen the freedom of speech, two questions which are pivotal in Jordanian politics right now – or should be pivotal, in the people’s opinion.
Text: Johanna Wassholm
working for the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation in Amman, Jordan
Translation: Katharina Andersen
Nabila Espanioly: feminist leaders in the Knesset!
Today, parliamentary elections are held in Israel. One of the candidates is the Palestinian women and peace activist Nabila Espanioly. She is determined to stand up for women’s, children’s, Palestinian’s and minorities rights, even though the political climate in Israel is increasingly toughening.
The general elections on January 22 take place in a country more and more dominated by ultra nationalistic and religious forces. During the last years, the democratic space for maneuver has shrunk, e.g. through laws restricting human rights organizations’ possibilities to receive financial support from foreign countries, or laws forbidding to advocate for a boycott of Israel or restricting public support for activities denying that Israel is a ”Jewish and democratic state”. This makes work difficult for mainly women’s rights activist, peace activists and –parties and left wing organizations. ”The political climate in Israel is very difficult and challenging. All Gallup polls indicate a right wing majority in the election, the question is how strong they will be”, says Nabila Espanioly.
Nabila Espanioly is the founder and leader of The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s partner organization Al Tufula in Nazareth. Now she is running as no. five for Hadash, a party for Jewish and Palestinian Israelis. This is her first serious attempt to win a seat in parliament, but Nabila Espanioly is by no means a newcomer in politics. The questions she wants to drive in parliament are the same she has been fighting for in the last forty years: peace in the region, poverty reduction, unrecognized villages and women’s, children’s and Palestinian’s security, amongst others. ”I have always been political active and felt responsible for trying to create new possibilities for children, women and Palestinians – that’s why I decided to run for office”, she says.
Those who work against discrimination of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are constantly challenged. In December 2012, the central election committee of Israel (CEC), which is dominated by right wing parties, decided to disqualify the only Palestinian woman in the Israeli parliament, Haneen Zoabi, to run in the upcoming election. Prior to that, Zoabi was accused by the governing party, Likud, of denying Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state, because her own party supports ”a state for all his citizens” and by taking part in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May 2010 she herself ”had supported terrorism”. Israel’s High Court decided later that Zoabi’s disqualification was against constitutional law.
According to Maayan Dak, who works at The Kvinna till Kvinna’s partner organization Coalition of Women for Peace, Haneen Zoabi is exposed to severe political persecution. ”She constantly gets sexist comments, referring to her personal life, her age and the fact that she – god forbid – is a powerful single woman.”
In Nabila Espanioly’s opinion the incident around Haneen Zoabi is one of several examples of the right-wing parties’ political strategy to question the Palestinians’ legitimacy in the Knesset. ”Right-wing parties try to impair the influence of Palestinian leaders in the parliament. They regard our party, which welcomes both Palestinians and Israelis, as the most dangerous party in Israel,” she says.
Despite the circumstances Nabila Espanioly won’t be silenced. ”I’ll always say what I think. I’ll continue my fight for peace and women’s rights, Palestinians and marginalized groups, even if it costs me dear – I’ve paid the price before and I’m willing to do so again in the future.”
The forgotten occupation
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for general elections in Israel last fall. The elections were planned to take place in October 2013, but political friction about the national budget got Netanyahu to call for early elections. The question of Israel’s occupation of Palestine fell off the agenda, especially during the election campaign. “The occupied Palestinian territories used to be a major issue few years ago, for both right and left wing parties. But now the occupation has disappeared from the public discourse”, says Maayan Dak, from the Coalition of Women for Peace.
Likewise not discussed is the link between poverty – which concerned many Israelis during the wave of protests for social justice – and the occupation’s economy .
Disregarded or forgotten is also the question of marginalized group’s representation in politics. Even parties who have a balanced representation of women and men avoid to put marginalized women, Mizrahi-Jewish activists or Palestinians on their list, according to Maayan Dak.
According to Anna Björkman, The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation‘s coordinator for Israel and Palestine, it is likely that religious and ultra national parties will be successful in the elections. They have already influenced the Israeli society, not least the situation for women. Last year, Israeli media repeatedly mentioned incidents where women had been harassed because they had been wearing “provocative clothes”. One extreme example was the attack of ultra orthodox men on an eight year old girl in a bus, because she was wearing shorts. “Segregation in Israel gets more and more obvious and the election will largely be about in which society the Israelis want to live: A more secular and democratic or a more conservative one”, says Anna Björkman.
Nabila Espanioly is certain to win a seat in the Knesset. If her party won’t win five seats, some of the candidates placed higher on the list will give way, so that women will be represented. Before we hang up on the crackling line between Israel and Sweden, she says that it is important with international solidarity, especially among women’s organizations. “We need all support we can get to be able to continue to fight, we need a solidarity movement,” she says.
Text: Karin Råghall
Translation: Katharina Andersen
The Egypt constitution vote. Photo: Ahmed Abd El-fatah
The Egyptian National Council for Women has published a report on complaints about violations during the constitution referendum. Especially women were targeted in an attempt to prevent them from voting against the new constitution or from voting at all.
Together and side by side they fought in the Tahrir Square, female and male protesters, to bring down a hated regime. But for many women this fight was not only about getting rid of Mubarak, it was also about fighting for women’s rights.
In the year since Mubarak’s resignation, a lot has changed – but not for the better for women. Instead, they found themselves excluded from the political transition process. A government reshuffle reduced the number of women ministers from 3 to 2, the percentage of women parliamentarians has fallen from 12 to 2 percent, thus reaching the lowest level in the whole Middle East, and a quota for women’s representation in parliament was abolished. There were no women in the constitutional reform committees and only six women were chosen by the Islamist-dominated parliament to join the 100-person assembly formed to draft the new constitution.
Nevertheless, many women were insisting on exercising their right to vote and continuing to be a part of the transformation. So also when the country voted for the new controversial constitution in December 2012. But to take part in the referendum was difficult for many, especially for women, and there has been allegations of widespread irregularities in the voting process.
Voting report of the Ombudsman Office
The Ombudsman Office at the National Council for Women received a large number of complaints. The ombudsman reports that many polling stations for women were consolidated, causing a capacity overload, so women had to queue for many hours to vote. The problem was aggravated by the fact that some of the polling stations opened late, were closed repeatedly during the day and closed early, so far from all women got a chance to vote. Women were intimidated, harassed and insulted by the monitoring judges or employees and complaints were ignored. Islamists illegally campaigned at some polling stations, trying to persuade or bribe the waiting women to vote yes. Some judges, who were supposed to monitor the referendum, ordered women to vote yes or ticked yes themselves for illiterate women. Other complaints concerned the absence of monitoring judges inside the polling stations, the ban of unveiled women from voting, group voting and outdated electoral rolls with names of dead people registered. The Ombudsman Office interpreted the incidents as “attempts to exclude women from participating to vote in the referendum”.
In the end, Egypt voted yes on the new controversial constitution, which is seen as a backlash against women’s rights as the constitution does not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender. In the post-Mubarak Egypt women are still only given limited basic rights, and Article 2 of the constitution establishes Shari’a law as the primary source of legislation. Amnesty International is concerned that this “may impact on the rights of women, and may be used as a justification to uphold legislation which currently discriminates against women in respect of marriage, divorce and family life.”