This story is part of World Pulse’s Democratic Republic of Congo Regional Focus Campaign to End Violence Against Women. These testimonies, along with hundreds of others, were delivered to the 2013 African Union Summit.
World Pulse believes that women's stories, recommendations, and collective rising leadership can—and will—bring an end to gender-based violence. The EVAW Campaign elicits powerful content from women on the ground, strengthens their confidence as vocal grassroots leaders, and ensures that influencers and powerful institutions hear their stories.
Signaling Change in DRC: Survey Shows Women Ready to Lead
World Pulse worked with Mobile Accord to design and deliver a series of ten questions to women in eastern DRC through SMS. The survey addressed topics ranging from personal experiences with sexual violence, the challenges women face in their communities as a result of conflict, to their roles as peacemakers. Volunteers worked to translate responses from French to English and to make the results available and accessible online in both languages. The data, which relies largely on open-ended questions, is sortable by the age and region of each participant, and provides rich insight into the diversity of women’s views and experiences in DRC.
Women Hold the Solutions
When asked what challenges their communities face in terms of conflict, some women said they did not face any at all. Others touched on factors indirectly related to conflict, such as a lack of economic opportunity or the involvement of foreign powers. Others describe a laundry list of social ills.
“There is war, huge displacement of the population, famine, infectious diseases, and lack of hygiene, violence towards men and women, lack of education for children,” says one respondent. Another cites “the lack of running water and electricity, employment, and a shortage in schools, which means girls marry too early.”
It is within this broader context that Galya Benarieh Ruffer, director of the Center for Forced Migration Studies at Northwestern University, places the issue of sexual violence, which the international community has increasingly recognized as a chief concern for women. She suggests that foreign interventions based on a narrow, sensationalized definition of sexual violence in warfare tend to distort the bigger picture of women’s realities in the Congo, ignore men’s roles in the work to end violence, and allocate resources in ways that incentivize women to claim victimhood. Many survey respondents seem to be calling for a major shift towards equality at all levels of society. And as Ruffer emphasizes, “This kind of change can’t happen if it’s just imported by international [organizations].” It must be owned locally.
“When we talk with grassroots community women,” echoes Namadamu, “they have solutions for family, for community, for country, for continent, for the world.”
The number one solution to end violence against women cited in this survey is the need to address the legal system. “Impunity reigns,” declares Desiree Lwambo, Gender Advisor at HEAL Africa. And this is true of all cases, not just sexual violence. “Processes are costly, proceedings questionable; anyone can be bought. The state is not weak by any means, it is very present and strong when it comes to extracting money through taxation or oppressing opposition and criticism. Yet is strikingly absent when it comes to providing services or protecting the population.”
Finding justice through legal routes is simply not an option for most survivors of sexual violence. “Most rapes,” says Ruffer, “happen within a community, and even what we think of as military rapes are men who are 'local bandits,' known to the community, and part of the community.”
Several survey respondents opened heartbreaking windows into the hidden violence that occurs in the homes, and other trusted spaces. One woman wrote of being abused by her uncle. Another wrote of the sexual advances of a teacher and a minister that had traumatized her to the point where she could no longer go to school.
Ruffer explains that if a girl manages to overcome taboos to actually report the rape, and in the event that there is actually a conviction, the neighbors are angry with her for taking a productive man out of the community.
“They are mad at her, not at him” she says. “They may think she’s just trying to get money. If she’s a young girl they say ‘Why don’t you marry the guy?’ Girls in this situation would like to be able to move to a different community, but there’s nowhere to move. “
Women Lead the Way
“We don’t know where to go to talk about ourselves,” says Namadamu, describing widespread silencing of women that extends far beyond the legal system. Women in DRC lack avenues to participate in public space. And women who do stand up and take public leadership roles face backlash in their community. “Those who want to talk are killed,” reads one chilling survey response, underscoring how dire the consequences can be for women who speak out. Women may be positioned to lead, says Lwambo, but “a lot of these same women never get to realize their potential.” . . .