Congolese Women: We’re Not Just Victims
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.
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.