BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo (WOMENSENEWS)--The streets here are usually a drab combination of dust and mud. But on International Women's Day, which took place March 8, they were awash in color as thousands of women, dressed in their finest, came to celebrate.
Although this place is often associated with the world's worst rape crisis, women throughout the east, especially in Bukavu and Goma--the provincial capitals of South and North Kivu--use the occasion to show they refuse to let victimization define them.
"I think there is great progress because women have proved that after so often being a victim, she can fight," said Justine Masika Bihumba, coordinator of Synergy of Women Against Sexual Violence, a network of 35 women's organizations in North Kivu. "She's found she can speak out against what's happened to her."
On March 8, the day started under a bright, hot sun as thousands of women converged on downtown Bukavu to celebrate International Women's Day, which marked its 100th anniversary of declaration this year. Each group of women dressed in coordinated outfits of swirling, patterned purples, rose-pinks, burnt oranges, cabernet reds and cool shades of blue.
The women of the QG 10th military regimen of the Congolese army led the parade, still in their olive green uniforms. Despite their uniforms, they sang and danced with the same spirit as the rest.
"We're soldiers, but we're women," said Lt. Faida Katete. "We are ready to gather strength with other women for the development and protection of women."
Participants came from local organizations--including those representing soldier's wives, pygmies and advocates for rape victims--international nongovernmental groups and U.N. divisions. They marched for peace, equality and an end to the rampant violence against women that has come to define the verdant eastern corner of this vast central African nation. All the groups held signs bearing their names, some signs including anti-rape and anti-violence slogans. Other women explained in interviews with Women's eNews their reasons for marching.
Marching in the Rain
Clouds formed several hours after the parade began, growing darker. The rain poured down in a torrent, but most women continued to march, moving en masse down a street that became a milk-chocolate river. They continued to keep pace with the steady beat of a horn orchestra. After about an hour of unrelenting rain, the crowds began to disperse. The event concluded by 3 p.m.
Christine Karumba, Congo country director for Washington, D.C.-based Women for Women International, said she prefers an event with specific outcomes.
This year, her organization met with Rwandan women in Goma, on the border between Rwanda and Congo, to stand together as examples of how women cross divides to end violence and encourage peace. Congo and Rwanda were once at war.
Similar demonstrations of solidarity were held around the world, under the "Join me on the Bridge" campaign, organized by Women for Women.
Bukavu's women will gather again in October when the city hosts the culmination of the World March of Women. Created in 2000 by women from Quebec, Canada, the event occurs every five years, said Josee Kusinza Nyenyezi, secretary for the coordination of the World March of Women for South Kivu.
The World March, whose secretariat is based in Sao Paolo, Brazil, was established to combat violence against women and the feminization of poverty, Nyenyezi said.
Nyenyezi believes it's good for women to take one day to exult.
"8 March must also be an opportunity for people who cried much to rejoice," she said.
Victims With Strength
Through roughly 14 years of brutal conflict in Congo, more than 5 million people have died and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped. The United Nations Population Fund says more than 15,000 rapes were reported in 2009, including 9,045 in the war-torn east.
Such statistics do not mean women here are disempowered, though, said Marianne Mollmann, women's rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, in a recent e-mail to Women's eNews.
"They are victims of horrible crimes, but not because they are weak," she said. "There are a myriad of reasons that compound each other that have to do with lack of infrastructure and support, impunity, myths about sexual violence as somehow giving the combatants more strength [and] sexual violence as a tool for submission of a population that is not, as a starting point, submissive."
Banza Mbuyu, 27, a former member of the Rally for Congolese Democracy, a Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed rebel group, marched with other female ex-combatants. It was the first time such a group had joined the parade, said a staff member of CARITAS, a confederation of anti-poverty Catholic organizations that sponsored the group.
Mbuyu readily acknowledged that many Congolese women have suffered at the hands of armed militias.
"It is true what happened to them," Mbuyu said. "We have to apologize to them and then ask them not to stop struggling. But now we have to struggle together."
Parade organizers could not provide an estimate of the number of marchers, but it was a typically strong showing for a city with numerous local women's groups and a tradition of strong civil society. Several activists said the number of activist groups in the city easily numbers in the hundreds.
More Women Speaking Out
Josephine Kavira Malimukono, coordinator of the League for Congolese Solidarity, a Goma-based group that fights for women's rights, said more and more women have spoken out against violations of their rights as the country's crisis climaxed in the last 10 years. She also said women's groups are increasingly working together. She cited in particular the Collective of Women's Associations for Development, a group of 23 organizations, including her own, that meets monthly in Goma.
Annie Bukaraba is Congo coordinator in the Great Lakes Program of International Alert, a London-based peace advocacy group that supports women's political participation. The women's movement in South Kivu is one of her areas of expertise.
"The women are strong, they have power. The law on gender parity in the constitution comes from their struggle," she said of Amendment 14, which requires that women have 50 percent representation in public institutions. "They had men as allies, but the initiative came from women."
The country, however, has no mechanism to implement the amendment and only 8 percent of the National Assembly is female. Bukaraba said the election law is discriminatory for not requiring political parties to submit candidate lists that are 50 percent female, though they are supposed to.
Mathilde Muhindo Mwamini, president of the director's committee for the Caucus of Women for Peace in South Kivu, a group that supports women's political participation, said, however, that once women are elected or appointed (as with most provincial political posts, since there have not yet been local elections) they often represent the interests of their political party more than those of women at the grassroots.
"We still have to work hard for political cohesion," she said.
Danielle Shapiro is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
For more information:
World March of Women:
Women for Women International: