Congo is a nation of sisterhood and solidarity. We are changing our country from within, risking our lives to speak out and taking up the political fight against sexual violence – rather than just taking notes while men speak
By The Guardian, 10/09/2017
I grew up in Goma, near the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country where sexual violence is notoriously widespread.
But we do not see ourselves as the “rape capital of the world”. Instead, I agree with Liberia’s Nobel Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, who called my nation “the world capital of sisterhood and solidarity”. Congolese women have decided to take our future into our own hands. We have few resources but we have an enormous amount of know-how.
Victims of sexual violence have been largely forgotten after decades of what seems like a never-ending war. For 30 years, since leaving school, I have worked with women here and have received dozens of death threats as a result. My home and office have been attacked and raided. One of my staff members was raped.
We women have a huge influence in our communities yet we are almost entirely excluded from Congolese political life. A lot of this is down to the traditional role of women and a government that ignores article 14 of our constitution, which demands gender equality. Only 8% of parliament is female and we have been almost completely left out of peace-building efforts – apart from the occasional inclusion of one or two women to take notes while men speak. According to the International Peace Institute the chance of lasting peace increases by 35% when women are included in talks, but during times of war, women’s political participation tends to decrease while sexual violence increases.
For many years I have known that efforts to build peace and end sexual violence should be led from the front. A lot of meetings have taken place, which give the illusion that progress is being made. In 2000, UN security council resolution 1325called for women to be given equal political participation and governments to take “special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, in situations of armed conflict”. But after more than 17 years of involvement by the United Nations and three years after the UK’s Global Summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict, progress on the ground is minimal. The summit cost £5.2m ($6.9m) to host while we carry out our work with nothing.
Last month my organisation coordinated 65 women leaders from every province to come to our capital city, Kinshasa, to start a Congolese Women’s Forum for peace and equal political representation. Meryl Streep, Gloria Steinem, Lena Dunham, the former UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay and Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström gave advice and pledged support. It felt incredible to have so many people listen to us.
Less than one week after the event we started to see progress. Six women from our group and 80 local women were included alongside militant groups in peace talks in the Kasai region, a hotbed of violence, where an estimated 3,300 people have been killed by warring forces in the past year. Collectively, women made up around 20% of those in the room – a huge contrast with similar previous events.
We are now focused on increasing this further, against all the challenges.
Every day I put my life at risk by speaking out, but I have no choice but to keep going. Congolese women need to be taken seriously so the DRC can finally witness the peaceful future that we have all dreamed about for many years. A part of that is in our hands.