In the developed world, women fought and struggled to gain their rights and eventually created a space in which these rights could be expressed. Violence does indeed occur in the developed world, but it cannot be compared to what is happening in countries that are plagued with persistent, systematic conflict. Women in the developed world are informed and educated about their rights and the channels for recourse and justice. In developing countries, most women are illiterate, so they do not have this information or the means to acquire it.
To use my country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as an example, violence and conflict are directly tied to context. Armed groups still use sexual violence as a weapon of war to humiliate people and force them to leave their homes. Soldiers from the national army and United Nations peacekeepers have also committed acts of sexual violence.
War and conflict have been so persistent in my country that most social structures have been destroyed — people’s cultural habits have been completely ruined. Men in all levels of society are involved in sexual violence. These acts are also committed within traditional society by chiefs and other leaders. In some tribes, young girls are kidnapped for forced marriages as part of inauguration ceremonies for chiefs.
We are always concerned about the UN — which is constantly promoting ideas, texts, conferences and resolutions that do not result in realistic changes in the lives and women and girls. Take, for example, the goal of eliminating poverty throughout the world; we’ve been talking about doing this and how to do it for a long time, but nothing has changed.
In the Congo, there is so much conflict that progress is difficult to maintain. People are displaced regularly and lives are uprooted daily. I have experienced this personally. I worked for 26 years in Bunia, in eastern Congo, as a journalist. But in 2002, because of threats to my life from armed groups, I was forced to flee to Beni, about 90 miles north, leaving everything behind. I started my life again there with a colleague, but in 2008 I was threatened again. I was displaced to Kinshasa, the capital, and lost everything once more.
The UN has had a peacekeeping mission, called Monusco, in the Congo for 20 years, the largest-ever peace operation in the world body, with more than 20,000 troops on the ground. Why can’t they bring peace? We do not want and are not asking for a handout; we want to control our own land, raise our own food and lift ourselves from poverty. The UN needs to be concrete against poverty, and resolutions must translate into action. Women need to be involved in the actions that seek to create peace. The UN says that it prioritizes the rights of women, but I don’t believe that the UN respects equality.
In regard to Goal 6 of the new Sustainable Development Goals, to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, the Congo is a big country with numerous water sources, mines, forests and lakes. Yet the Congolese live on less than a dollar a day. A woman often has to feed more than 10 people everyday. What can the UN do about this? Doesn’t it know by now what it needs to do to help our country?
The UN needs to hear the cries of women and girls.
Organizations that I founded — Fonds pour les Femmes Congolaises (Congolese Women’s Fund) and Solidarité Féminine pour la Paix et le Développement Intégral (Female Solidarity for Integrated Peace and Development, or Sofepadi) — and other women’s groups inform Congolese women and change laws to create a judicial system that is accessible and willing to advocate on women’s behalf.
In the Congo, you have to literally pay for justice, and if a woman does not have the money, there is no hope for her. Sofepadi pays the court fees for women who have experienced sexual violence. From January to September 2015, the organization identified 306 new cases of sexual violence and helped take 168 cases to court. Seventy-six of these cases have led to a conviction.
Our organizations also provide information to women about family planning, the birthing process and other useful facts. We are also seeing many men accompany their spouses to seek contraceptive information, and several women now use their preferred method of birth control. Some churches oppose the idea of family planning, but we believe it is important for women’s health and agency.
In the developed world, there is no comparison. We want solidarity among women around the world. We need women with access to contraception and family planning services to advocate on behalf of those that do not. Women in the developing world want contraception and know that family planning — mapping out births in advance, ensuring financial stability before having children — is essential to a higher quality of life for their families.
Change in our country must therefore come from us: we know our problems best. That’s the message we give everyday to the international communities, yet no one understands. We know the actors involved and the problems at hand; what we need is the resources to take action. The international community can walk alongside us and provide support when appropriate.
We work with traditional leaders, for example, who are now helping to change antiquated and sometimes archaic customs. These leaders are beginning to appoint women as deputy chiefs and chiefs of villages and neighborhoods. Many of these women are also appointed leaders of local peace committees and working to denounce impunity and helping to combat sexual and gender-based violence. We are working with these grass-roots women to change discriminatory laws and customs. We are doing vast amounts of work without much financing, which makes it difficult to get regular media attention.
How is it acceptable that some leaders of countries and members of the UN are embezzling resources? How is it possible that they look on while neighboring countries pillage the resources of the Congo, leaving us with nothing? How is it possible that some countries — in the name of democracy — start wars in other countries and leave women more vulnerable, even though they say they’re bringing peace?
All these countries need to have some norms of democracy applied to them, as they go in, start a war and leave women more vulnerable than before. Congolese need to stay in our country to bring peace and help develop the nation. If we all leave, what happens to future generations? The UN has to think about that, lead by example and have more women involved in its decision-making processes.
The international community has many seminars about peace, but then it claims that local organizations do not have the capacity to manage resources. The international community uses our country to get financing, but doesn’t want to give us the means to make change and instead uses the money for its own programs.
We are the ones with the solutions who can bring about change. We are willing to cooperate with nongovernment organizations, but we ultimately need to be in the lead. We know what needs to happen and have been successful in the past. Change must come from the bottom up.
A former Congolese radio journalist driven from her job and forced to start her life over twice because of threats from militants, Julienne Lusenge is a leader of women’s self-help organizations supported by the American Jewish World Service, which helped her write this essay, translated from French.