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.