Two innovative women from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where violence against women and girls has been harsh and unrelenting through years of lawlessness and civil conflict, came to New York in early March with a message of progress and hope. They have been chipping away at the epidemic of abuse, working not only to prevent the brutal sexual assaults that have given the region a global reputation as an epicenter of rape, but also to mitigate the demoralizing menaces of daily life: abandonment, expropriation of their homes and meager sources of livelihood, the theft of crops and plots of land and a lack of legal redress for the damages they suffer.
The two women, Chantal Kakozi, who works in South Kivu Province, and Josephine Malimukono, an activist in North Kivu, are community organizers with extensive experience and qualifications in business and rural development and who are committed to providing the tools and a supportive environment for building self-confidence and self help at the grassroots level. They have worked to involve men -– often traditional village leaders -– in reducing the vulnerability of women.
The work of their nongovernmental organizations -– Kakozi is a co-founder and director of the Women’s Solidarity for the Well Being of Families in Fizi, which has declared itself a city of peace, and Malimukono is executive director and program coordinator of the League for Congolese Solidarity in Goma -– takes place against unrelenting outbreaks of violence. The violence involves numerous players: the Congolese army, rebel groups and raiders from elsewhere in the region. The most serious challenge in Goma recently has come from a movement of mostly army defectors that calls itself M23.
Two possible breakthroughs have kindled hope in eastern Congo. The former leader of the M23, Bosco Ntaganda, a brutal ex-Congolese army officer who has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, sought refuge recently in the US Embassy in Rwanda and was turned over to the court (at his own request) by American and Rwandan officials. Then, at the end of March, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to create for the first time a combat brigade of 2,500 troops authorized to battle rebels in Congo. The “intervention brigade” is to be set up for one year as an experiment because of the exceptional crisis in Congo. It will be backed by surveillance drone aircraft.
The Kivu provinces were drawn into a wider regional conflict in 1995, when an ethnic Tutsi-led government took power in neighboring Rwanda and an armed ethnic Hutu militia, which was held mostly responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide that left an estimated 800,000 people (mostly Tutsi) dead, fled across the border into eastern Congo. Now many Congolese say that violence continues as Rwandan forces enter the region to maintain their access to the precious metal and minerals found there. The Rwandans say they are on guard against armed Hutu, who are still viewed as a potential threat to Rwanda. Meanwhile, a peace treaty signed in February between the Congolese government and M23 is viewed with skepticism in the Kivus.
“We had regained hope after the peace accord was signed last month,” Malimukono said. “But people were being killed the next day, and the violence is still continuing.” She and Kakozi brought their message to New York as the 45-nation Commission on the Status of Womenwas meeting at the UN, squabbling over the wording of what should have been a resounding condemnation of violence against women and girls.
“From the work that we do, we see that the perpetrators are coming from all parties, even the Congolese army,” Kakozi said. “Everyone who has guns commits violence.” She said that there had been reports of UN peacekeepers abusing girls in South Kivu, but she had seen no proof of this. The UN maintains a large force of nearly 20,000 troops, military observers and police in the Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, called Monusco.
“The UN has been here for over 10 years,” Kakozi said, “but the same cycles of violence continue. Peace in the DRC would bring peace everywhere in the region.”
Kakozi and Malimukono agreed that the UN presence has done little to stop the kinds of violence they encounter in this large and sometimes inaccessible area of the country, and they try to create islands of peace at the community level through local efforts.
“Over the years, we have had a series of peace accords and nothing really happens,” Kakozi said. “We have decided to focus our attention on fostering dialogue ourselves so we can put an end to war, because it is women and girls who are paying the high price.” The women spoke through an interpreter, Rosalie Nezien, Africa program director for the American Jewish World Service, which supports the work of these two organizations and others in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The agency is led by Ruth W. Messinger, a former Manhattan borough president.
The organizations directed by Kakozi and Malimukono share similar strategies, they said. They bring women into community support groups to educate them about their rights, a complement to helping them improve their lives economically though learning new skills and the means of defending their lives and property. “To be self-reliant, women need their rights to be respected,” Kakozi said. “Women’s human rights and economic rights go hand-in-hand.” For women in distress, her organization establishes safe spaces for them to meet and talk. She calls them “listening rooms.”
Lawyers are brought in to explain legal rights and avenues for justice. Malimukono said that seeking legal redress is hindered by many problems: victims’ fears of reporting sexual violence in particular; having to travel great distances to courts in large towns or cities; the complexities of filing cases when bureaucracies make the procedures complicated and time-consuming.
“On top of these issues, they are also dealing with impunity,” she said. “Sometimes, you can have someone arrested and punished, but they will be sentenced for just a few days and then they are released and you have to start over again.” Still, the women said, more victims are willing to bring cases to local tribunals and urban courts.
Both women say they’ve had success in including men in their work, turning them into partners in the fight against violence and educating them about the value of family planning, the prevention of abuse and other social issues.
“We work with men in leadership positions -– village chiefs, teachers, local officials, religious leaders,” Malimukono said. “We try to raise awareness and tell them about the consequences of sexual violence and get them to be allies in defending women’s rights in the communities where they live. So now we see men who are standing up and protecting women –- their wives and daughters and women in general. For example, men are now deciding to go into the bush and collect wood. That’s not a man’s role. Men don’t do that. But now they are doing that because they want to protect the women and girls.”
Malikumono said she wanted to emphasize “one big last thought” as the conversation ended. “We need peace like everyone else. We know there are conflicts happening in other countries but we are really tired. The UN can do much more to bring about peace in the DRC.” (She was talking about these problems before the Security Council announced the creation of a combat brigade.)
“A long time ago,” she added, “people were able to go about their activities at any time. But now after 6 p.m. you can’t venture out. It’s total danger. We do appreciate international support and any assistance we are getting. That’s good. But we can do things for ourselves. We are able to take fate in our own hands. The problem is violence and political instability. We need peace.”
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.