In Congo, Women Put Power Behind Rejoicing

Sunday, March 14, 2010

On International Women's Day there's no better place to be than Bukavu, in the troubled eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The outfits are spectacular, the dancing is spirited and the horn orchestra keeps playing through the rain.

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Victims With Strength

Women braved a torrential downpour during the International Women's Day parade in Bukavu.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.

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