Few countries in the world have suffered from such a sustained period of war and conflict as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This Central African nation, the second largest on the continent, has endured wars resulting in over five million deaths since 1998. The country remains in a state of near-constant conflict, despite the presence of the United Nations’ largest peacekeeping mission in the world, known as MONUSCO. Women have suffered disproportionately, particularly in regards to sexual violence, with the DRC being labeled the “rape capital of the world.”
Spearheading efforts to protect women and offer services to victims are two lifelong Congolese gender justice activists, Chantal Kakozi and Josephine Malimukono, whose successes are noteworthy in an environment rife with gender inequity and militarization. Kakozi is the co-founder of Solidarité des Femmes de Fizi pour le Bien-Etre Familial (SOFIBEF), which addresses sexual and gender-based violence by raising awareness through media, offering psychosocial support to survivors, and pushing for judicial reform to protect women’s rights. Malimukono focuses largely on women’s economic empowerment, working with Ligue pour la Solidarité Congolaise (the League for Congolese Solidarity) to promote civil and socioeconomic women’s rights.
“We have seen women taking the lead in the peace-building effort in the DRC, especially when it comes to sexual violence and gender-based violence, and also in promoting the respect for human rights. We’ve also seen the emergence of many women-led organizations at the community level,” says Kakozi. This is particularly important, she noted, because of the erosion of social cohesion that occurs in communities where violence against women is so prevalent.
Kakozi, who has done significant advocacy work around the U.N. Security Council’s Resolution 1325, says that in the DRC the implementation of particularly important since women and children are the ones paying the biggest price in the conflict. Legally, both women say, the government has said they are taking steps to ensure women are involves in decision-making. But practically speaking, that hasn’t happened, both also report.
“In the parliament, I know that some women are advocating for political parties to have a 50/50 percent representation, but that is not happening at all,” says Malimukono.
“It’s an ongoing struggle for us when it comes to the implementation of SC resolution 1325, and what is written in our Constitution about women [being represented in Parliament]. We are not seeing that happen at the practical level, and we’re still fighting for women to be able to access decision-making spaces and be able to add their voices in all forums of discussion on peace efforts and reconstruction,” adds Kakozi.
Congolese women are pushing for their voices to be heard, even when they are shut out.
“Women have used their own money – they have saved and used their own money to travel and attend negotiations for peace. I want to give you an example – in 2008, there were negotiations in Nairobi, and we women from North Kivu province, we mobilized, organized, we used our own money, and we took the bus, from Goma to Nairobi,” says Malimukono. Once there, the women were denied entry to the negotiations room.
In spite of these setbacks the women push forward, though security poses a constant threat to their success. In 2008, Malimukono’s group built alliances with several militia groups by engaging with spouses of military leaders to get their message to male militia leaders.. As recently as 2011, they were hopeful of the work they were doing. But the uprising of M23 last year [a rebel group that formed in April in 2012; one of M23’s leaders, Bosco Ntaganda, surrendered last Monday] undermined their work.
Given the increasing number of deaths in detention centers and the recently publicized rash of sexual assaults committed by Congolese army battalions – which, as Malimukono points out are often blended with former rebel group members – trustworthy partnerships in peace building seems more important than ever. Kakozi says of the more recent reports of sexual violence, “It looks like it’s happening much more in places where the Congolese army and other armed groups are fighting each other. The unfortunate thing also is that we all know perpetrators of sexual violence are coming from all layers of society.”
The widespread militarization makes it difficult to address the issue of impunity in these cases. They praise the efforts of some MONUSCO units, Kakozi in particular discussing how they intervened in 2011 to help securitize local tribunals that went after high-ranking military commanders who had committed rapes and sexual assaults throughout the Fizi territory. MONUSCO also covered the expenses incurred by Kakzoi’s organization, SOFIBEF, from hosting many of the rape survivors during the trials so they could testify.
That being said, both women stress the need for more help from the mission in curbing incessant uprisings, which prevent the government from doing work that benefits its population. Kakozi says, “We are wondering about the effectiveness of MONUSCO when there seem to be newer armed groups, that seem stronger and are still perpetrating crimes – so we wonder how MONUSCO is doing its work in terms of preventing and responding to violence.”
“Even if they don’t have a clause about militarization in their mandate, they still have to find a way to help our government to do that work,” adds Malimukono.
Despite these struggles with restricted access to the negotiations room and widespread militarization, the women remain dedicated. Last November, when Goma fell under M23, Malimukono says women from the North Kivu province came together and wrote a letter to Susan Rice, asking her to be the spokesperson on behalf on the women of North Kivu. While they have not received a response, the effort is part of their goal to engage the international community more fully in their struggle.
Malimukono and her team are also currently reviewing the most recent peace accord, signed in Addis Ababa in late February, for its incorporation of the role of women. The fact that it was signed by eleven African nations and guaranteed a special envoy – recently announced to be former Irish President Mary Robinson – is significant, both women said, despite that Kakozi noted it tackles issues that were promised to be resolved in a similar 2008 agreement. If it addresses the decentralization of power to the grassroots level, she also wonders how that might be accomplished without the explicit incorporation of women, whose leadership is most evident at the community level. Of significance, Malimukono says that on the same night the peace deal was signed, the there were killings in Rushuru and Kitshanga. Both women await the effectiveness of the accord, which they say will be evident soon enough on the ground.
When asked for her strongest statement to the global community as they ask for support, Malimukono said, “My message remains the same. The militarization – [ending it] is the only way out. We are not free.”
Originally published in MediaGlobal.