WORLDVIEWS

Violence Against Women Worsens by the Day in the Congo

Justine Bihamba
Justine Masika Bihamba, who runs a women’s rights group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told the UN Security Council on July 26, 2018, that the UN peacekeeping mission there can no longer afford to pay for human-rights experts on the ground, a result of budget cuts recently approved by the UN General Assembly. JOE PENNEY

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has been placed on the United Nations Security Council agenda for several decades, in one form or another through various peacekeeping missions. The Council regularly meets on the status of the Congo, with the most recent session occurring on July 26, 2018, concentrating on progress toward scheduled presidential and legislative elections planned for Dec. 23.

Justine Masika Bihamba, president of Synergie des Femmes, a women’s organization based in Goma, Congo, spoke to the Council on the conditions of women in the country, including the increase of sexual violence against women, long a plague of the numerous intermittent wars in the Congo since its independence, if not earlier.

Here is Bihamba’s speech to the Council, translated from French by Donor Direct Action, a women’s advocacy group based in New York that supports Bihamba’s organization. — The editor. 

Mr. President, Excellencies, Good morning. I would like to thank the Swedish ambassador [Olof Skoog, Sweden’s envoy to the UN], who invited me here so that I could speak on behalf of Congolese women, too often victims of sexual violence and excluded from the management of public affairs and peace negotiations.

I am a woman human-rights defender and chair of the board of directors of Synergie des Femmes pour les victims des Violences Sexuelles, a platform of 35 organizations working for the improvement, promotion, defense, respect and protection of women’s rights and especially women who are victims of sexual violence. We also intervene in governance, advocacy, the protection of human rights and the construction of a lasting peace in North Kivu in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Today, I would like to address three themes:

● Monusco [the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo];
● The increase in insecurity and the increase of cases of sexual violence against women and girls;
● The tense political climate, following the failure to hold elections within the constitutional deadline.

Monusco

The decision to close some Monusco bases exposes the civilian population in sensitive areas once again. Despite the rapid deployment, interventions often arrive too late, when irredeemable acts already have been committed. After a decrease in financial resources, the [Monusco] Joint Human Rights Office is no longer present on the ground; as a result, it can no longer effectively document the cases of serious human-rights violations that are now reported by phone.

The population also fears unrest and misbehavior on Election Day [Dec. 23] and hopes that Monusco will ensure the training of Congolese police in order to maintain order and secure polling stations.

The increase in insecurity and the increase of cases of sexual violence against women and girls

In the Congo, the situation of women, and particularly those victims of sexual violence, is worsening by the day due to the proliferation of armed groups. These groups are at the root of repeated wars, causing mass rapes and population displacements, mainly affecting women and their children. Cases of rape and violence increased this year by more than 60 percent in North Kivu.

The tense political climate following the nonholding of elections within the constitutional deadline

The political climate in the Congo is very tense due to the nonholding of elections within the constitutional deadline [of December 2016]. Several demonstrations have been shut down by the police, civilian deaths occurred, material damage was extensive, especially in convents and Catholic churches, and arbitrary arrests of leaders of the citizen movement, of political actors of the opposition and of human-rights defenders took place. Five months before elections are to take place, political abatement is far from being a reality for activists who are still imprisoned.

In addition to this political instability and the brutal repression of dissident voices, several legal-reform projects initiated by the Congolese government tend to further reduce Congolese freedom of expression and civic space. Among them, one reform aims to modify the operating regime of NGOs [national and international governmental organizations] and the fight against terrorism. If these reforms are adopted in their current terms, the key principles of the rule of law will be undermined.

The low participation rate of women in the current electoral process and other decision-making bodies

The Electoral Law, promulgated on Dec. 24, 2017, constitutes a serious obstacle to the rights and freedoms of the Congolese people. It imposes many constraints, including the requirement for candidates to reach a threshold of representativeness of at least 1 percent of votes at the national level. As a result, no provincial election candidacy was filed by the deadline in some constituencies. In addition, this law discriminates against women in the electoral contest by not taking into account their socioeconomic conditions. The law imposes candidates to pay a deposit of $1,000, an astronomical sum for women and young people, most of whom live on an income of less than $ 1 per day. The Congolese Women’s Forum on Resolution 1325, representing women from all provinces, has pleaded to the authorities of the Congolese Republic to demand that this project is abandoned.

The use of the voting machines proposed by the government is also disputed by the political actors and the majority of the population for fear of electoral fraud. The Congo currently has a population that is 65 percent illiterate — mostly women and young people, who would have enormous difficulties using these machines.

Finally, as a woman human-rights defender, president of the board of directors of Synergie des Femmes and on behalf of all excluded and abused women, we recommend to the Security Council and member states:

● To pressure the Congolese government to implement a policy that truly promotes women’s participation in decision-making and women’s candidacies for elections;
● To ask the government to respect freedom of expression, the right to demonstrate and the civic space of the Congolese population;
● To require the government to respect the Saint Sylvester Agreement [stipulating that elections should occur in 2017], the Constitution and the rule of law;
● That Monusco restore its bases in sensitive areas to ensure the effective protection of civilians, support the electoral process and ensure that the Joint Human Rights Office effectively documents human-rights violations through field visits;
● To materially support civil society organizations that work for the promotion and defence of women’s rights to train women in leadership to be able to access decision-making positions.

Thank you, once again, for giving me the honor, as a woman human-rights defender, to make the voices of the voiceless heard.

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