UNITED NATIONS, MediaGlobal News–Few countries in the world have suffered from such sustained 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 DRC remains in a state of near-constant conflict, despite the presence of the United Nations’ largest peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO.
Women have suffered disproportionately, particularly in regards to sexual violence, leading the DRC to be labeled the “rape capital of the world.”
Spearheading efforts to protect women and grow female leadership are two lifelong Congolese peace and 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 raises awareness of sexual and gender-based violence through media, offers psychosocial support to survivors, and advocates for judicial reform. Malimukono focuses largely on women’s economic empowerment, working with Ligue pour la Solidarité Congolaise (League for Congolese Solidarity) to promote civil and socioeconomic women’s rights. They discuss their work and challenges in an exclusive interview with MediaGlobal.
Taking the lead in community and advocacy work
“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 respect for human rights,” says Kakozi. “We’ve also seen the emergence of many women-led organizations at the community level.” 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 has done significant advocacy work around UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the first such resolution to require women’s roles and active participation in peace and negotiation efforts. Its implementation in the DRC is imperative, given that women and children bear the brunt of the conflict. Legally, both women say, the government has said they are taking steps to ensure women are involved in decision-making. But practically speaking, that hasn’t happened.
“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 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.
Security issues pose a constant threat to their success. In 2008, Malimukono’s group built alliances with several militia groups by engaging with the leaders’ spouses, hoping they would deliver messages to their high-ranking husbands. Through 2011, they were hopeful of the work they were doing. But the uprising of rebel group M23 last year [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 – often blended with former rebel group members – trustworthy partnerships in peace building seems more important than ever.
Kakozi says of the 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.”
Widespread militarization makes it difficult to address the issue of impunity in these cases. The women both praise the efforts of some MONUSCO units, Kakozi in particular praising the 2011 intervention to safeguard local tribunals that went after high-ranking military commanders charged with committing rapes and sexual assaults throughout the Fizi territory. MONUSCO also covered the expenses incurred by Kakozi’s organization, SOFIBEF, which had hosted many of the rape survivors during the trials so they could testify.
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,” says Malimukono.
Kakozi and Malimukono are hopeful of the most recent peace accord, signed in Addis Ababa in late February, for its incorporation of the role of women, yet what those roles are is still unclear. That the accord 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.
When asked for her strongest statement to the global community as they continue with their work, Malimukono said that while they remain hopeful, “The militarization – [ending it] is the only way out. We are not free. We are not able to think the way we would like to think. We are not able to do our work the way we would like to do it. We are not able to do anything when you think there is someone nearby that is ready to assassinate you the next moment you do something. Help us de-militarize.”
The author would like to thank Rosalie Nezien of American World Jewish Service for her assistance in French translation during the interview.