Women in the Maman Shujaa Center in Bukavu, DRC, are daily traveling the world online, making new friends, experiencing new places, new ideas, and even new opportunities. But this level of sophistication is something that has taken time to acquire, and in fact most are still working to acquire it. But the ones who have gotten it are really inspiring those who want to get it. And fortunately, the ones who’ve gotten it are thrilled to share what they’ve discovered.
The challenges in getting to this stage of things have been many. For one, the Internet was and still is widely considered a business tool for men in government and men who work for big NGOs. Internet is something far from the realm of women’s daily lives, whose concerns are feeding and otherwise caring for their families.
The financial challenge is a significant one. With the average family in Congo living on $1 a day, having to pay $1.35 per hour for an experience you’re not sure about is a real extravagance. On top of that, if you don’t know what you’re doing, the Internet Café will charge you for everything they have to teach you. And since most internet cafés have notoriously slow connections, becoming savvy can cost more than your children’s school fees.
We were fortunate in our beginning. World Pulse was starting a Digital Action Campaign to End Violence Against Women, and as Congo was known to be the “Rape Capital of the World,” they got a donor to sponsor us for the duration of the Campaign. With that we rented 12 computers in a local Cyber Café for 3 hours every day, and even paid transportation costs for women to come. Having the financial aspect covered, the next question women asked: how is being connected online going to help? Women here are very deliberate. Every action has got to be adding something. The days are too short and the mouths at home are too many. Well, the advocacy campaign was a big hit with our sisters.
We all have our stories, and it’s not so much that we want to tell them, but that we want it all to have meant something. We want better for our daughters, so telling our stories with a view to having them make a difference somehow was and is compelling. Every story was so raw and affecting that World Pulse packaged them up for hand-delivery to the African Union Summit, so that the stories of the lives of women in DRC could be heard as coming out of their own mouths. Then World Pulse introduced us to Change.org and we posted an online petition for a U.S. Special Peace Envoy that got over 100,000 signatures, which got us an appointment with President Obama’s National Security Council at the White House, which eventuated in the appointment of Russ Feingold as Special Envoy to DRC and the Great Lakes Region.
Our beginning with the whole online experience was tremendously uplifting. The embraces of solidarity by the World Pulse community of women who were commenting on our postings, and our online petition resulting in a U.S. Special Peace Envoy to DRC – we were overwhelmed! We were attracting international attention as the Nobel Women, Femme Africa Solidarity, and even UN Special Envoy Mary Robinson were taking notice.
More and more women joined themselves to the Maman Shujaa Center and besides advocating for a change of paradigm in Congo, they were wanting to know how to leverage the connection to impact their personal situations. That’s where the World Pulse forum really began to have some significance for individual women and where the Light really began to switch on for many. The women began to dig in to the World Pulse Resource Exchange. It was tough getting some traction since everything posted was in English and we are French speaking. But using the Translation tool that World Pulse provides, the women began checking out all the opportunities. In the Opportunities section of the Resource Exchange, we were finding trainings, project funding opportunities, and other compelling prospects being posted. Several of the women got selected for trainings and conferences, several got sponsors for projects, and a number of our young women and men are in the selection process for the United States Young African Leaders Initiative. Those things have kindled a fire.
As women of a nation that sits in the basement of the world’s human development index, we need some resources, we need some funding for our projects, and we need some personal development. The women love posting in their journals and interacting with their global sisterhood on the World Pulse forum, and that’s still the first place they go when getting online in the Center. But these women are change-makers. They are online advocates, yes, but their real desire is to be creating the change they’ve been advocating for. Sure, these are small steps we’re talking about. But who doesn’t start with small steps? Just stepping is big to us!
I am so proud of these women who have pushed through. And I’m even more proud that they are leading others through. We’ve had over 500 women join the Center, add their voice to the advocacy campaign, and explore the online world - half of whom had never used a computer before. Being connected online is a new frontier for Congolese women, but we’re beginning to tame it; slowly but surely. We’ve come a long way; from not really believing in it, to learning how to leverage it. Now they’re asking for specially tailored trainings, ie. how to perform specific research, how to apply for a grant, how to develop a network of support, etc.
We’ve still got some big hurdles in front of us. We’ve only got one small, underfunded Center in this city of one million people, and a lot of women who would love the chance to get online with us. We intend to open a Center in July in a very remote part of our province. We will need solar electricity and satellite internet connectivity there. Speaking of funding, we are having to learn how to get serious grant funding ourselves; trial by fire as they say. It’s all a learning, growing, maturing process; one step at a time. But as said before, we’re just thankful to be stepping into the online world of opportunity!