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.”
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.”