For women’s full participation in conflict resolution and peacebuilding

An initiative from Kvinna till Kvinna

Using the church to increase women’s rights

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We received a blog post from Ylwa Renström, coordinator for the Democratic Republic of Congo at the Swedish women’s rights and peace organisation The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, who recently met with women’s rights activists in DR Congo and Burundi.

“Sitting outside the airport in Kigali, I think back on the last few days that I’ve spent in Burundi and in Uvira in DR Congo. In Burundi, I met women from the organisation MIFA (Ministère de la Femme en Action – “Ministry for women’s rights activists”).

One of them was Dina. Like some other members of our partner organisations in DR Congo, she was exposed to serious threats from unknown groups and had to leave her hometown of Uvira. I met her, her children and some other members of MIFA at the place where she now is living. Despite the threats, Dina is determined not to give up her struggle to improve women’s situation in DR Congo.

Dina told me about MIFA’s plans for next year’s support from Kvinna till Kvinna. They have received approval from seven churches in South Kivu in eastern DR Congo to push for more women on decision-making positions and in the church’s body for conflict resolution. MIFA has also received inquiries from church leaders in Burundi and Rwanda to start working with them. With few exceptions (Dina is one of them), women are almost totally excluded from the leadership of the church.

In the Great Lakes region, churches’ opinions carry great weight in society. Dina says that by working with church leaders and pastors to make them convey the message of women’s rights, many of the churches’ members would take this to heart. The pastors will also highlight passages in the Bible that defend women’s rights.

Dina also shared one of many success stories told by MIFA employees. This was from the High Plateau, which is mostly inhabited by the ethnic group Banyamulenge. An girl of 13 was married off to a 17-year-old in a traditional ceremony, including the payment of dowry. This type of marriage is common on the High Plateau.

The girl moved in with her husband and his inlaws, but almost immediately the groom went away. After months of waiting for his return, the bride didn’t want to remain in his house, but return to her parents. Her inlaws refused and the pastor who had wed the couple forbade her to move.

Some of MIFA’s employees got involved and were planning to report this to the police, since the marriage was not legally binding because of the couple being underaged. MIFA’s support to the girl got the pastor to annul the marriage, the dowry was paid back and the girl could return home.”

Increased violence in DR Congo threatens civil society

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A UN tank makes it way through the streets of Bukavu in South Kivu. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Mufariji Assy.

A UN tank makes it way through the streets of Bukavu in South Kivu. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Mufariji Assy.

Recent months have seen an increase in fighting between different militia groups and the national army in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces. The situation is now so bad that it seriously affects civil society organisations ability to carry out their work.  

”We are deeply worried, both for the safety of our partner organisations and for all civilians who are subjected to this violence” says Ylwa Renström, Coordinator for DR Congo at the Swedish women’s rights and peace organisation The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation

In February this year, 11 African countries signed an agreement called the Framework of Hope for peace and security in DR Congo and the region.

The following month the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2098, in which it for the first time gave a brigade within a UN peace keeping mission (MONUSCO, DR Congo) the task of carrying out offensive operations – on its own or together with the Congolese army. The resolution also gave the newly appointed Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, Mary Robinson, the task of helping the parties in the framework to deliver on their commitments. Within her mission is a special mandate to focus on women’s empowerment and regional economic integration.

Framework without women

Mary Robinson has highlighted the crucial importance of women and women’s rights organisations being a big part of the peace work. However, the framework itself hardly mentions women – apart from stating that it’s important that ”women’s groups” know the details of the agreement. And so far, neither the framework nor the resolution have lead to any big improvements in the situation for people living in the conflict-ridden North and South Kivu.

Besides from fights constantly flaring up, UNHCR in the end of July reported an alarming rise in sexual violence in North Kivu, with a registered 705 cases January-July, compared to 108 cases during the same period last year. At the same time tens of thousands of civilians have been forced to leave their homes, fleeing the armed violence. There are several militia groups that are active in the provinces and they are fighting amongst each other as well as with the Congolese army.

Severe threats against activists

Civil society organisations operating in the Kivu regions, are used to working under difficult conditions security-wise. However, it has gone from difficult, to worse, to really dangerous.

”Earlier our partner organisations talked about, for example, getting stopped in road blocks but being able to talk their way through. Now there are times when they don’t even dare to go out. There have been several severe threats against human rights activists and many are very afraid” says Katarina Carlberg, Kvinna till Kvinna’s Field Representative in DR Congo.

”It’s crucial that the Congolese government, as well as the international community, focus on the protection of civilians and to achieve a stable security situation. This is also in MONUSCO’s mandate.”

Malin Ekerstedt

“Girls don’t finish their studies because of sexual harassment from teachers”

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Equal Power – Lasting Peace met Elizee Mwele Ngongo from CEDEJ, Cercle d’Échange pour le Développement des Jeunes, in The Democratic Republic of Congo, on a visit to Sweden. She works against sexual harassment in schools – a common reason for girls dropping out and thereby not getting an education. “I will not rest until girls finish their studies” she says.

Interview made by Malin Ekerstedt.

UN report: Gross human rights violations in Kivu provinces last year

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Villagers fleeing their homes in Sake, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)’s North Kivu province, after fighting erupted between FARDC Government forces and rebel groups. UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti

Villagers fleeing their homes in Sake, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)’s North Kivu province, after fighting erupted between FARDC Government forces and rebel groups. UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti.

In November last year, the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) and the militia group M23 were responsible for nearly 200 cases of rape and arbitrary executions, during their fighting in the North and South Kivu provinces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, states a new report from the UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO).

More than 350 victims and witnesses were interviewed for the report and their testimonies speak of gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, like mass rape and the rape of girls as young as six years old, executions and violations resulting from widespread looting. Particularly systematic and violent was the abuse committed by FARDC elements as they retreated from the towns of Goma and Sake in North Kivu and regrouped in and around the town of Minova in South Kivu.

“Those responsible for such crimes must know that they will be prosecuted,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a comment.

BackgroundIn April 2012, a mutiny of the Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo (FARDC) in North Kivu, initiated by General Bosco Ntaganda, led to the creation of the Mouvement du 23 mars (M23) rebellion.


After occupying part of Rutshuru territory from July 2012, the M23 rebellion seized the towns of Goma and Sake on 20 and 22 November 2012 respectively, while troops from the FARDC retreated towards Minova, South Kivu province.


In partial compliance with a communiqué issued on 24 November 2012 by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), M23 combatants began to withdraw from Goma and Sake on 1 December 2012.

Source: UN Joint Human Rights Office

In December 2012, a judicial investigation was launched, supported by MONUSCO, the UN mission in the DR Congo, and other partners. As of the end of March 2013, 12 senior officers had been suspended in relation to the Minova incidents while the investigation by Congolese justice authorities is ongoing.

According to UN News, the joint investigation puts poor discipline among soldiers and officers, as well as improper training and inadequate vetting mechanisms as causes behind the violations.

“I welcome the measures taken so far by the Congolese authorities, including the decision to suspend senior officers allegedly connected to the mass rapes,” said Special Representative of the Secretary General in the DRC, Roger Meece. “The UN continues to offer its support to both the judicial investigation and the Congolese armed forces. However, for this support to be continued, the ongoing investigation should be pursued in an independent and credible fashion, and justice should be delivered to the victims. Future efforts to reform the security sector must include a systematic verification of the human rights records of combatants and their commanders in order for the Congolese army to fully ensure the protection of civilians.”

10 May, Tanzanian soldiers arrived in Goma as part of an intervention brigade of 3 069 peacekeepers, authorized by the UN for the area. The brigade is part of MONUSCO and is tasked with ”neutralizing armed groups, reducing the threat posed to State authority and civilian security and make space for stabilization activities”, reports UN News.

UN Secretary General’s 2013 report on sexual violence in war and conflict

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United Nations Security Council Meeting Room. Photo: Zack Lee

United Nations Security Council Meeting Room. Photo: Zack Lee, CC

Today, on April 17, the UN Security Council discusses the UN Secretary General’s 2013 report on sexual violence in war and conflict. The report highlights several emerging concerns, such as the practice of forced marriage by armed groups and the links between sexual violence and natural resource extraction.

“It is important that the UN Security Council continues to keep the focus on this issue. The Security Council plays a key role in preventing and combating the prevalence of sexual violence in war and conflict,” says Lena Ag, Secretary General of The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, and continues:

“But it is worrying that sexual violence used against political dissidents, as happened during the riots after the Kenya elections in 2007 and in Conakry in Guinea in 2009, is not mentioned in this year’s report, as it was in the last year’s. Nor can rape and serious sexual harassment Egyptian women recently suffered in Tahrir Square in Cairo be found in the report. Our experience is that sexual violence and the threat thereof is one of the most common obstacles for women around the world to get access to the public sphere and to gain influence in society.

This year’s report states that:

  • sexual violence is a serious war crime and elucidates that there is an evident connection to international peace and security;
  • sexual violence and the number of rapes in Mali have increased;
  • sexual violence is often used as a strategy to forcibly displace populations and for ethnic cleansing. One of the reasons is to get access to coveted natural resources or to facilitate drug trafficking. This happens for example in Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria and Libya;
  • in Syria, rape happens at some places and at certain times to such an extent that it could be classified as war crime and crimes against humanity. Jailed Syrian men have also been reported to be victims of rape and torture;
  • forced marriage and sexual slavery has become increasingly common. Militia and guerrilla leaders in e.g. Afghanistan, Mali, Sudan, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Yemen abduct young girls, marry them for then be able to “legally” rape them. Other victims of sexual violence are forced to marry their abusers. This way the perpetrator gets away from punishment;
  • activists, opposition, local politicians and their families are particularly vulnerable to threat of sexual violence and sexual violence.

The report also provides recommendations:

  • women who get pregnant after being raped should be offered adequate care and access to safe abortion or emergency contraception pills;
  • impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence should be counteracted and prohibited;
  • efforts should be made for better monitoring and reporting on men as victims of sexual violence.

“In recent years, conservative forces with religious leanings take every opportunity to try to limit women’s rights. We saw this most recently in March at the UN’s

FactsAfter the UN Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the UN Security Council adopted in 2000 the Resolution 1325 “Women, Peace and Security,” which is about women’s rights and participation as actors in peace processes. It was followed by the Resolutions 1820, 1888, 1889 and 1960, which further strengthen articles of Resolution 1325 (1889), and specifically target sexual violence in conflict (1820, 1888, 1960).

Commission on the Status of Women. An unholy alliance between the Vatican and Iran amongst others used every opportunity to put a spoke in the wheel of the effort to reach an agreement to end violence against women,” says Lena Ag and continues:

“It is therefore an important signal that the powerful G8 countries, with British conservative Foreign Secretary William Hague at the helm, adopted a declaration in support of the UN’s efforts against sexual violence in conflict last week.”

Anna Magnusson | Katharina Andersen

The Panzi Hospital in the DRC – a place of hope for women

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Dr. Grace Rehema Muhima

Dr. Grace Rehema Muhima from the Panzi Hospital presented the hospital's first Annual Report in Stockholm. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation | Katharina Andersen

One of the few functioning institutions in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo is the Panzi Hospital. Since 1999, about 30,000 women have been treated and cared for, and left the hospital empowered.

The Panzi Hospital in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo was founded by Dr. Denis Mukwege in 1999, mostly to assist pregnant women. But the hospitals first surgical patient was a woman who had been raped and then shot in her vagina. This woman was to be the first of about 30.000 survivors of sexual violence who have been helped at Panzi. Beginning with the war of 1996, sexual violence in the DR Congo increased enormously and rape became a weapon of war. A study from the World Bank amongst others shows that 12 percent of the Congolese women have been raped at least once.

The Survivors of Sexual Violence Project

Experiencing so much misery, the hospital started ‘The Survivors of Sexual Violence Project’ in 2004, with the objective to provide holistic care to survivors of sexual violence. Dr. Mukwege saw the necessity of not only repairing the physical damages of rape, the psychological traumata are oftentimes more difficult to heal. Care is required that goes far beyond clinical treatment. Thus, the hospital provides counseling and guidance, psychosocial, legal and socio-economic help.

As Jan Egeland, European Director of Human Rights Watch, puts it: “Panzi Hospital and its founder, Dr. Denis Mukwege, serve as a beacon of hope for thousands of victims of rape and sexual mutilation, ranging from children to grandmothers.”

No public health facilities

The DR Congo used to be known for its well-functioning health care system; nowadays public health facilities are more or less non-existent, which affects women especially hard.

The high prevalence of rape and the fact that contraception is either too expensive or only sold to women who can prove that their husband consented to birth control, contribute to that Congolese woman have on average six children. Having been pregnant many times or being very young when getting pregnant increases the risk for serious pregnancy or birth complications.

Women’s health is furthermore threatened by the lack of educated midwives, unattended births, the enormous distances and bad road conditions, oftentimes preventing women from reaching a hospital; and last but not least widespread poverty, which makes it impossible to pay a hospital bill. Maternal mortality in the DR Congo is thus among the highest in the world.

Treatment at Panzi hospital is free for survivors of sexual violence, malnourished people and HIV/aids patients, the most vulnerable groups. “Health and human rights go hand in hand and health should be an assurance for all mothers, not just for those that can afford the services, “ says Dr. Mukwege

The UN Millenium Development Goal (MDG) 5A has the target to reduce maternal mortality by 75 percent before 2015 – but with only two years left until deadline, only 50 percent are reached. Still, every day, almost 800 women die in pregnancy or childbirth, and for every woman who dies, 20 or more women experience serious complications, like obstetric fistula.

Fistula ‐ a devastating childbirth injury

Panzi hospital also provides care for women with fistula ‐ one of the most devastating childbirth injuries. A fistula develops when the head of the child during prolonged labor presses on the tissues of the vagina, cutting off the blood supply to the bladder or the rectum, which causes a hole in the tissue, through which urine or faeces pass uncontrollably.

Women with fistula are often abandoned by their husbands and family, their communities ostracize them and force them to live isolated. A successful operation at Panzi means that these women not only are cured, but get back a social life.

Dr. Grace Rehema Muhima presented the first Annual Report

Panzi Hospital’s first Annual Report was recently presented in Stockholm. Dr. Grace Rehema Muhima from the hospital traveled to Stockholm to tell about the situation on the ground after the assassination attempt on Dr. Mukwege in 2012. He had to flee the DR Congo, but decided later to return, as the hospital is the place where he is needed, Grace Muhima says. He was welcomed back like a hero, thousands of women were waiting to greet him – and promised to protect him. “These women have been mistreated and raped for a long time, their rights have been violated, but they have remained courageous,” he said upon his return. “Thus, I am comfortable staying at their side to help heal them, no matter the consequences.” Local officials and MONUSCO, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo have promised increased protection for Dr. Mukwege.

The situation is very unsafe, but the hospital staff continues the work, Dr. Muhima said. She stated furthermore that the hospital needs help of the international community for capacity building and for further development to be able to help even more women. More trained midwives for example would have a tremendous impact on reducing maternal mortality.

In a misogynic country like the DR Congo, Panzi hospital is a place where women are offered the experience: somebody is on my side, somebody cares and somebody helps. Here women are not outcasts, not stigmatized.

One of the cofounders of the hospital, the surgeon Dr. Nfundiko, says: “… often people come in and have lost their hope. It is always satisfying to watch them recover and regain their hope, determination to heal and will to live.”

Katharina Andersen 

Women ignored in DR Congo peace agreement

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Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation | Ida Udovic

Women were absent when the peace agreement in DR Congo was signed. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation | Ida Udovic

Eleven countries signed a peace agreement mediated by the UN to end war in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But civil society is not elated.

The new framework agreement for peace and stability in eastern DRC was signed in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on February 24, in the presence of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Eleven African countries signed the agreement, which among other things regulates the deployment of a special UN intervention brigade to the eastern DR Congo with troops from Southern and Eastern Africa. The brigade is supposed to reinforce the UN peacekeeping troop MONUSCO, which already is in the country. The undersigning countries furthermore committed not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs.

“Rwanda and Uganda have been criticized for their support to the rebel group M23. With this agreement, this kind of support has to stop. But it remains to be seen what will happen,” says Ylwa Renström, The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s coordinator for the DR Congo.

The violence escalates

Ylwa Renström sees it positively that there seems to be a will in the region’s countries to bring about a peaceful solution in DR Congo. At the same time, she continuously receives reports on escalating violence in eastern DR Congo. In early February, 30 women were for example raped in the Fizi territory in the South Kivu Province, brutal assaults which are believed to have been carried out by the FDLR rebel group. “This happens all the time! Sure, countries in the region can sign peace agreements, but it will be an enormous challenge to demobilize the rebel groups,” states Ylwa Renström.

The organization Solidarité des Femmes Activistes Pour la Défense des Droits Huimains (SOFAD), who works for peace and to increase women’s participation in political decision-making, is not impressed by the agreement. “They consider it a desktop product, signed by high-level politicians without consultation of civil society. Because of this the have doubts of how effective the contract will be to lay the foundations for lasting peace,” says Katarina Carlberg, The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s field representative in DR Congo, who has spoken with representatives of SOFAD.

Signees of the agreementThe peace agreement has been signed by Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. Signees are also the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), the African Union, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the United Nations.

Women ignored

Katarina Carlberg also points out that the agreement neither mentions women’s rights nor women’s participation. Neither reflected in the agreement are the principles of the UN resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, nor mentions it women’s inclusion in the different mechanisms of stabilization and peace building the agreement suggests. “The only thing the agreement contains is a brief reference to sexual violence,” says Katarina Carlberg.

The content of the agreement has been criticized from different sides for being too vague. 46 Congolese and international organizations from civil society wrote for example in a joint statement that if the agreement should contribute to a genuine peace, it must be supplemented by concrete measures, such as the appointment of a special UN envoy with a mandate to mediate in both Congo and the region and the inclusion of civil society in the peace process.

In the organizations opinion it is furthermore important that war criminals do not go unpunished, as it has been the case in previous agreements.

Text: Karin Råghall

Translation: Katharina Andersen

New collaboration in DR Congo strengthens women’s participation in peacework

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Life Peace cooperation in Bukavu. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation | Anna Lithander

Representatives from nine women's and peace organizations met in Bukavu in November 2012 to mark the beginning of a three-year collaboration. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation | Anna Lithander

Politics and conflict resolution in DR Congo are areas reserved for men. But a new project, strengthening women at the local level, aims to break this pattern of discrimination.

Violence, harassment, slander and threats, poverty, corruption – the obstacles for women taking part in the daily life and future of their societies are many in the war-torn DR Congo. And the escalation of the conflict in eastern DR Congo the last couple of months, has once again made it evident that women are especially targeted. Several of the organizations in the region working with women’s rights and peace, have been subjected to violent threats and harassment.

In DR Congo, politics is not considered to be something for women to occupy themselves with. For many women the mere thought of participating on a political level is totally alien and women who do go into politics are at times even singled out as “rebels” and “prostitutes”.

Still there are many strong women in the country who are trying to increase women’s involvement. To support these struggles and to contribute to a more equal and sustainable peace, two Swedish orgainzations – The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation and the Life & Peace Institute – have teamed up to finance a three-year-long project for women on conflict resolution.

The Life & Peace Institute has worked with peaceprocesses on a local level in eastern DR Congo for many years.

- For several years we have tried to get a gender perspective into our work, but we haven’t been able to do it systematically. With the help of The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation and the Congolese women’s organizations that they work with, we hope to reach more women and make sure that their voices also are heard when local disputes are being resolved, says Zaurati Nasibu at Life & Peace in Bukavu, eastern Congo.

The conflict resolution method used by Life & Peace is based on long-term work to resolve local conflicts, with as many parties as possible involved in achieving peace. So far, however, too few women have been present and active.

- We advertise about information meetings, but not many women come. Clearly we have to have a different approach. Perhaps we should invite women separately? says Loochi Muzaliwa from Life & Peace.

- We women’s organizations also work with women’s peace issues, but we lack strategies and we don’t have the right connections. In this project we can all come together with our different points of view, but with the common idea that women are central in achieving lasting peace. We are very positive about this collaboration, it feels really important, says Gege Katana from the women’s rights and peace organization Solidarité des Femmes Activistes Pour la Défense des Droits Huimains, SOFAD, in Uvira.

The project kicked off in November 2012, when men and women from nine different women’s and peace organizations from eastern Congo came together in a two-day-meeting held in Bukavu. They discussed everything from how traditions discriminate women, to what the UN resolution 1325 on women, peace and security really means.

“Can we talk about women’s rights and participation at the same time?” one of the participants asked himself and initiated a loud discussion. “People have no idea that there even is a UN resolution on women in conflicts – education and training will be needed,” another person around the table said. “Women make up half the society and are the war’s main victims. They must be part of the work otherwise the peace won´t last,” a third participant pointed out.

The meeting ended with the participants listing the concrete tools they thought they would need to be able to work more systematically with peace and women’s participation.

The peace organizations expressed a desire to learn more about what a gender perspective really means and of legal and other documents that support women’s rights. The women’s organizations wanted to learn more about mediation, negotiation techniques and conflict analysis.

- In AFEM (Association des Femmes des Médias) we support women in rural areas and often help out as mediators when women who have been raped have been disowned by their families. We need to learn more about good mediation techniques, so that we really can help people reconcile, says Julienne Baseke.

The next participants meeting will take place early 2013. After that a pilot project related to Life & Peace’s conflict resolution method will be launched in one of the villages in the region that currently is dealing with a conflict. With the help of women’s organizations participating, the hope is for more women to be able to share in the talks to reach a solution.

Text: Anna Lithander

Translation: Malin Ekerstedt

Giving Congolese women a voice: “Maman Shujaa,” the Hero Women

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Congolese staff member from Femmes en Action Pour le Developpement Intégré, FADI, in Kiliba, South Kivu

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.

Off-the-radar war

“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.

Women’s situation

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.

 

Katharina Andersen

Peace activists targeted in recent wave of violence in eastern DR Congo

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Once again the level of violence is escalating in eastern DR Congo. Many women’s rights and peace activists have been subjected to death threats and harassment.
– I have been threatened several times through the years, but now the situation is getting worse. The threats are no longer directed just at me, but also against my family, says Eric Lwa Mwenge from the peace organization FADI in Uvira.

During the last month there have been many reports from eastern DR Congo of increased levels of violence and of death threats against people who are working for peace in the conflict-affected region.

The city of Uvira, in the South Kivu province, has been especially targeted and has become a dangerous place to live and work in. Since two weeks there are restrictions on travelling in and out of the city in the evenings, in an attemt to curb the development.

Questioned about motives

FADI (Femmes en Action pur le Developpement Intégré) works with conflict resolution at the local level, between people from different ethnic groups in the villages outside of Uvira. Eric Lwa Mwenge often gets questioned about his motives.

– “Why are you talking to them? Whose side are you on anyway?” The suspicion is great, even though all I try to do is to contribute to a better climate between people, he says,

He has sought support from the local authorities, but they say that they are not able to protect either Eric Lwa Mwenge or his family. But fleeing is not for him.

– If we who believe in a change leaves the country, how will the situation ever get better? How will there be peace then? I have to stay!

Sleep across the border

Gege Katana, who works at the women’s organization SOFAD (Solidarité des Femmes Activistes Pour la Défense des Droits Huimains) in Uvira, agrees with him.

- It would be cowardly to flee, you just can’t do that, she says.

According to Gege Katana, peace actors in the region are trying to continue their activities, at the same time as they are talking precautions for their safety.

– For example some of us are crossing the border into Burundi in the evening to sleep there, just to not have to worry during the night. Then we can go back and work at home in Uvira in the daytime.

Political motives

It is unclear who is behind the escalating violence. Most likely there are several different actors. There is a lot of tension between different rebel groups and criminal elements also follow in the wake of the conflict. Only a few nights ago three families in Uvira were seriously injured in an attack by a group of men armed with machetes.

There are speculation about there being political motives behind several of the recent attacks, including the one on the chief surgeon at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Denis Mukwege, two weeks ago.

In Goma, north of Bukavu, a peace activist was recently kidnapped by a group of men. She was released the next day. According to her organization the kidnapping occured because of the organization’s criticism of the government’s unwillingness to address the conflict in eastern Congo, a criticism which they share with Dr. Mukwege.

– When there is turbulence among those in power it spreads down to the civilian population as well. We have no links to the top but what we can, and must, do is to continue working for peace in the region. Work with the people here so they not get stained by images of the evil enemy and drawn into the conflict, but instead focus on a peaceful future, says Eric Lwa Mwenge.

Anna Lithander