A global women’s organization with wide experience in peace-building recently brought together scores of prominent women from six African nations to take well-defined steps for dealing with the root causes of the persistent sexual violence occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Declaring that peace in eastern Congo could bring peace to the entire Great Lakes area of central Africa, delegates meeting in Kinshasa, the Congo capital, demanded more action from governments within the region.
Congolese women were joined by women leaders from Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Uganda at the Women’s Peace Dialogue conference in April, organized by the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, a nonprofit membership group that promotes the goals of the United Nations Security Council resolutions on women, peace and security. The group arranged the meeting, which attracted 80 participants, with its fellow Congolese members.
As reported by the UN and other sources, rape and other forms of sexual violence continue to increase at an alarming rate in the Congo. The UN estimates that 40 women are raped every day in South Kivu Province, in eastern Congo, alone.
Taking a concerted approach, conference participants are calling on the Congolese government to take greater responsibility and demonstrate strong leadership to find solutions to the complex problems in the country. They insisted that an inclusive peace dialogue at national and provincial levels to discuss and address the root causes of the 20-year-old conflict be organized. The dialogue, they say, should incorporate political parties, civil society groups — particularly women’s groups — traditional leaders, religious entities, police and military officers, the justice sector, private sector, diaspora and all key national and provincial ministers.
Such an inclusive approach is important because most interventions are addressing only the symptoms and not the sources of the conflict. These sources are numerous and intersecting: they include a tumultuous colonial history, fighting over mineral resources, corruption, economic decline and weak government institutions. The situation is worsened by the spillover of neighboring conflicts, the financing and arming of fighting groups by the neighboring states, other armed groups’ activities as well as the proliferation of weapons.
The Women’s Peace Dialogue participants outlined their recommendations in a Kinshasa Call to Action, the outcome document from the conference. These include:
¶ Guarantee at least 50 percent active participation of women in all peace negotiations and peace processes;
¶ Take into account women’s concerns in carrying out peace agreements, particularly the UN Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework on Congo and the region, signed by 11 Great Lakes countries on Feb. 24, 2013;
¶ Increase the number of women in decision-making positions and carry out the parity law, in accordance with Article 14 of the Congo Constitution;
¶ Sign the country’s national action plan on UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820, which mandate women’s participation in peace-building negotiations, and execute the steering committee and monitor the national action plan implementation; and
¶ Carry out a holistic program that will benefit all victims of sexual and gender-based violence, including provisions of financial support, legal assistance and medical and psychosocial counseling services.
As Justine Masika Bihamba, a civil society leader from Goma, said at the conference: “Eastern DRC [Congo] is far from the capital, and we, women in the east, often feel abandoned or that no one wants to bother with us. I applaud the convening of a Women’s Peace Dialogue and I congratulate the women who have come from other parts of Africa to take part in the dialogue and support us. Rwanda and Uganda are always implicated in the violence in eastern DRC. They have a tremendous influence on rebel activity. It is extremely significant that our sisters from Rwanda and Uganda have taken part in the Women’s Peace Dialogue. With the Kinshasa Call to Action, they can now reach out to their governments and lobby them to contribute in ending the violence.”
The women peace activists met with government ministers and other high-level officials in the Congo to present the recommendations from the Kinshasa Call to Action. While the suggestions were well received, some government officials admitted that the government did not have control over some areas in the east. This has left the women with a crucial question: If the government cannot protect its own citizens, who will?
Another major concern for the Congolese and Great Lakes women is the formation of the first-ever intervention brigade, which is about to operate in the eastern region as well. Authorized under UN Security Council Resolution 2098, which was adopted on March 28, 2013, the brigade will work with orders to “neutralize” and “disarm” armed groups in the region. The Women’s Peace Dialogue participants therefore put forward these demands:
- Facilitate discussions with women’s groups to ensure that their perspectives on the resolution are taken into account as it is implemented
- Ensure that all peacekeeping forces, including the intervention brigade, adhere to the principles of zero tolerance on sexual exploitation and abuse in the execution of their mandates
- Incorporate women’s concerns in the future execution of the brigade’s mandate
- Provide gender sensitization training to security forces, national military and the police
The participants also expressed concern that the brigade could actually contribute to the escalation of fighting and risk women and girls being targeted in retaliation. They urged the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo to continue to monitor and report on the human-rights situation and support national and international efforts to protect, promote and fulfill the human rights of the Congolese people. Additionally, they called on the mission, UN Women and other relevant UN entities to support the Women’s Peace delegation’s future advocacy efforts, including dialogues with local leaders and insurgent groups in eastern Congo.
In following up on their demands, the Women’s Peace Dialogue participants have sought the help of the defense minister of Uganda, Dr.Crispus Kiyonga, who chairs the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, to set up discussions between the women and the rebel groups operating in Congo and other countries in the region. They have also asked for help from Mary Robinson, the new UN special envoy for the region, to ensure that women civil society members can fully and equally participate in peace and security decision-making going forward.
Mavic Cabrera-Balleza is the international coordinator for the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders. She leads the group’s programs that carry out Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820, which ensure women’s role in peace and security in conflict situations. Most recently, Cabrera-Balleza, a Filipino, was in Sierra Leone, working on such a project. Her previous job was coordinator of the International Women’s Tribune Center’s human rights, peace-building and human security program. She has a master’s degree in communication research with a focus on women’s studies.