Blog Home » Voices from the Frontlines

Congolese Women: We’re Not Just Victims

30 January 2012 10 Comments

Women in Bakuvu. From right to left: Adele Safi Kagarabi, Liliane Waku, Lili Civava Ntamwinja, and Wilhelmine Ntakebuka

Christina Mitchell
United States/Democratic Republic of Congo

 “A failed state does not mean a failed people or, more notably, failed women.”

***

After three years of preparation, I finally met the women of the eastern Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, regions hosting what has been called Africa’s World War.  These are women who have seen the worst, but work toward the best.  Who have fought and survived despite the too common media story showing them as only helpless, voiceless victims.  I had previously confirmed that the victim narrative was baseless despite the very real vulnerability of Congolese women and the pandemic of rape accompanying the armed conflict.  I arrived to meet these women who had caught my imagination, to hear their points of view and to learn their reality.

Most of the reporting on the women highlights the horrendous accounts and high instances of rape that are instigated as a regular tactic of the conflict.  Although the violence is real, international peacekeeping, aid, academic, and conflict resolution entities represent gendered experiences as homogenous.  Women are victims, and men are victimizers.  Subsequently, the homogenization determines the definition of peace and processes of peacebuilding are developed that exclude the needs and voices of women.  For example, reintegration of combatants assumes that all combatants are male and, thus, does not make necessary arrangements for the special needs of reintegrating female combatants.  Furthermore, abuse, rape, malnutrition, constrained rights, etc., all remain a reality for women long after the armed hostilities are over.  Women are simply invisible beyond providing startlingly high numbers of victim narratives.  A failed state does not mean a failed people or, more notably, failed women.

Too often the relevant actions of Congolese women during decolonization, independence, and the armed conflict are relegated to rumor or irrelevance.  I am just now located again in the United States, beginning to uncover the scraps of written history by and about politically active Congolese women.  Rumor and irrelevance have promoted the victim narrative for the women, subsequently placing them in a secondary (and thus ignored) position in public and political decision-making.  This subjugation occurs despite promotion of equality and/or adoption of politically correct rhetoric. But Congolese women do organize, voice opposition, fight, and become politically active even in the most dangerous regions.

I finally entered the DRC in May of this year after a failed attempt in June 2010.  What I discovered in meeting these women was more than I could have ever imagined.

‘Peace’ for Congolese women is a straightforward concept encompassing basic services, sustainable living, and equal rights.  The most touching definition of ‘peace’ was provided by Liliane as having the stability of “knowing tomorrow.”  The women are aware they are depicted as victims, and find the depiction insulting and without merit.

Women in Goma. From right to left: Alyne Nziau, Charly Katsova Sivihwa, Mamu Bastola, Folestine Mutsinelu

Adèle noted that the international organizations use negative images of the women to justify their presence.  There are a multitude of grassroots women’s organizations operating in the country with little, if any, support or recognition by the government and the international aid, peacekeeping, and development organizations.  With tremendous foresight and fortitude the women have tackled issues as complex as disarmament and as necessary as food cooperatives.  The women desire an equal role in ending the violence and stress the importance of their role in the subsequent development of the DRC.  The women believe they have a say in the operation and running of their country and that their voices should be fully acknowledged.  For the women, justice and equal rights are intertwined.

All of these organizations provide some type of advocacy work coupled with political action (e.g., sit-ins or demonstrations) and conflict resolution practices. Networks of organizations have been integral to providing micro-loans, organizing women’s cooperatives, and coordinating demilitarization efforts.  These organizations also provide legal support for victims of violence, coordinate workshops on rights and gender, and register voters.  Planning relies on grassroots community initiatives called “peace groups” or “peace committees,”  mixed-gender groups of volunteers from the community, police, civil society, and army that produce their own peace-building mechanisms to address priorities set by the group.  They stated emphatically that it is through their successful efforts that the world has been made aware of the situation facing women as a result of the conflict.  The women were cognizant of their invisibility to the international community in terms of acknowledgement of their efforts, and they looked upon the snub with animosity.

The women are not opposed to international assistance.  However, they want international entities to work in cooperation with the government, establish priorities according to the needs of the targeted communities, leave when projects are no longer necessary, and fund and use local organizations to carry out the work.  These women deserve proper recognition, to have their voices made relevant and active, and look to aid groups only for support as they determine their own futures.

The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)
Loading ... Loading ...
10 Comments to “Congolese Women: We’re Not Just Victims”
  1. Jose Tenga says:

    “establish priorities according to the needs of the targeted communities, leave when projects are no longer necessary, and fund and use local organizations to carry out the work.”

    This is exactly what quite a few international development NGOs and practitioners do not do because it confers responsibility on their part to perform and report according to what they determine as their standards of conduct and achievement. Were they to establish priorities according to the needs of the targeted communities, the projects would not only be sustainable because of the huge local content and cajolement , but would be better managed and more accountable to the beneficiaries and local authorities, something that most development practitioners cannot do. In their bid to safeguard their independence, the surrender the priorities of the beneficiaries in favor of their own.

  2. Rose Gordon says:

    Thanks for the well done article. Its so important not to paint people as helpless, hopeless or broken when they have suffered traumatic experiences and responded with courage, resiliency and determination. Often, particularly in the West, we have been “trained” to respond to others when we see them, and not just their experience, as tragic or pitiful. That doesn’t do anyone any good. These women are heroic. As survivors they have “returned” from their experience bearing “the scars of warriors” and their hard-won wisdom, persistence and work deserves respect. As does their assessment of what is needed.
    I remember an old peace corp story about bringing water into each village home, becuase the “poor women” had to wash clothes at the well in the center of a village; only to discover that the women returned to that place to wash clothes because it served not just a functional, but a social function. Their conversations at the well brought cohesion and strength to the community. Kudos to the Congelese women for maintaining their dignity and self-respect.

  3. Patience Kabamba says:

    Thank you Christina for your posting. I have wrote extensively about the behavior of international NGOs, Western diplomats and academics. I can summarize my conclusions in three points:

    First, International NGOs people, Western diplomats, academic and UN personnels in Congo imagine themselves as purveyors of those necessary goods of modernity, such as ‘freedom’ and ‘security.’

    Second, they make the crucial move imagining themselves as capable of moving across social spaces without being subject – in any sense – to those same social spaces.

    Third, they are then a sort of global actors engaged in the elaboration of what may very well be a new or incipient kind of global governmentality, for whom Congo and Congolese are purely objects – and never properly historical subject – upon which various formulations combined ‘compassion’ and international and military policing must be directed in the presumably correct proportions in order to maintain or reinstitute law and order.

  4. Patience Kabamba says:

    Thank you Christina for your posting. I wrote extensively about the behavior of international NGOs, Western diplomats and academics. I can summarize my conclusions in three points:

    First, International NGOs people, Western diplomats, academic and UN personnels in Congo imagine themselves as purveyors of those necessary goods of modernity, such as ‘freedom’ and ‘security.’

    Second, they make the crucial move imagining themselves as capable of moving across social spaces without being subject – in any sense – to those same social spaces.

    Third, they are then a sort of global actors engaged in the elaboration of what may very well be a new or incipient kind of global governmentality, for whom Congo and Congolese are purely objects – and never properly historical subject – upon which various formulations combined ‘compassion’ and international and military policing must be directed in the presumably correct proportions in order to maintain or reinstitute law and order.

  5. Thanks Christina for the very empowering article – clear and to the point. We at the Southern Institute of Peace-building and Development (SIPD) share the same sentiments and operate on the premise that for any sustainable intervention at community level, beneficiaries are the primary actors. Please visit our website or the link http://www.sipd-zw.org/?q=system/files/Beneficiaries%20are%20actors%20too.pdf for our recent publication entitled “Beneficiaries are actors too.”

  6. Cameron Macauley says:

    Very nice article, very inspiring. However, I find it odd that you say “The women are not opposed to international assistance. However, they want international entities to work in cooperation with the government.” This is a government that has actively promoted violence against women! The government army, the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC), is one of the main perpetrators.

    I do see the need to work with the government in order to facilitate change, but change takes time and lives are affected every minute of every day.

    Thanks for your good work.

  7. [...] was inspired by this Peace X Peace post that I read the other day. It reminded me of an important concept that many people forget. As [...]

  8. Onni Milne says:

    What a difference between the comments in this article and the story of the “City of Joy”. This project was initiated by Eve Ensler and many others to create a space of refuge for women who had been raped and abused. They celebrated the graduation of their first class of 42 women trained to create new lives for themselves. Articles: http://drc.vday.org/cojupdate-011812(Update), http://www.vday.org/node/2838 (First Grad Class)

  9. CIHA Blog says:

    [...] “Congolese Women: We’re Not Just Victims” Peace X Peace (January 30, 2012) [...]

  10. [...] violent conflicts, women and girls are always the most affected part of the population. However, a failed state does not mean a failed people or, more notably, failed women, says Christina Mitchell, an American grassroots activist working with war-affected women in DR [...]

Leave a Reply

(required)

(required)