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
“This survey shows that there is an injustice being committed against women,” adds Ruffer. "The injustice is that there’s a lack of leadership opportunities in local governance among women and a lack of education for women.”
Rectifying this injustice and creating a climate for women to realize their potential as full participants in society is key to moving forward and turning the tide against a host of overwhelming challenges facing DRC.
Woman after woman cited tribalism and division along ethnic lines as a major challenge facing her community. The survey results also suggest that women may be poised to make strides in bridging these divides. While women may lack visible outlets for leadership, they hold many of the keys to change. They are active in religious life, education, and social services—institutions with the power to promote peace and combat gender-based violence.
“As host of the local health sector,” says one survey respondent. “I play an important role in raising awareness.”
“Women often play a much larger role than they personally admit,” says Desiree Lwambo. “Yet their influence is often the ‘back door’ type.”
Many women indicated the desire to move into more traditionally male dominated leadership roles such as lawyers and politicians, while others emphasize opportunities for women to work together, build a peace movement, and bring about change outside of formal leadership. Both are vital.
“In conflict,” Lwambo explains, “‘female’ qualities become devalued where the right of the strongest rules.” These are qualities that are in sore need of restoration in DRC.
Violence hasn’t just taken its toll on women, but on all members of society who depend on the family and community support systems women have traditionally held together. Or as one survey respondent put it, “We must never violate mothers because we cannot live in peace without mom.”
Heeding Women’s Calls for Peace
As with any survey, this one has its limitations. While mobile technology can reach more women than online efforts alone, this survey still excludes women who don’t have cell phone access, those who are not literate (which represents 43% of women in DRC), and those who don’t speak French (French is the official language of DRC, but much of the population speaks only Swahili or local languages).
Also the interpretation of survey questions can be influenced by cultural context, down to the very definition of rape and abuse. 11.8% of women in our survey reported that they had experienced sexual abuse. This is an appalling number in its own right, but there are discrepancies among different studies and many cite even higher numbers. A recent study reported that one third of men in DRC admitted to committing sexual violence. There are strong taboos in place in the Congo against discussing rape. Also, an adult woman raped by her husband or someone else known to her may not be considered a victim of sexual violence by her community. Women in the Congo may have the most direct and immediate knowledge about violence against them, but “if you don’t recognize your own body as your own,” says Ruffer, “and your entitlement to own it, then you don’t necessarily know you’re being abused.”
We may still be learning how to ask the questions, but there is so much to hear in these answers. This survey scratches the surface, but delivers clear messages on women’s desire to participate, to be heard, to air their visions of peace.
“If I can manage to put two words in our hearts, It will be: Love and Forgiveness,” writes one survey participant.
Maybe there’s nothing new in these words, but there is a power in their repetition throughout the survey responses. Love may not appear on any policy road map, but it shows up in force in this survey. Alongside women’s concrete suggestions on how they can work together to build peace, these sentiments indicate a seed of unity that could one day emerge into a game-changing peace movement.
Foreign journalists and other outsiders have the luxury of declaring Congo hopeless, as some have done, or writing off the plight of women in the Congo as simply tragic. But Congolese women themselves do not have that luxury. At World Pulse, we see women in DRC holding together the threads of broken communities and dreaming of what they might do with more support and opportunity. “Nothing should prevent a woman to go towards her future and achieve her destiny,” declares another participant.
If there is a single takeaway that runs through these thousands of survey responses from women across ethnicities and geographies, with varying life circumstances and sometimes conflicting opinions, it is the very fact of these women themselves, striving in all their diversity and humanity for a better future. Gathered together, their voices bolster Neema Namadamu’s resounding message to the world: Congo is not a lost cause.