Amidst the prolonged armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, women’s rights organisations in South Kivu have been instrumental in supporting victims of gender-based violence and advocating for women’s rights for the past 25 years.
The eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have been burdened with political instability, violent conflicts, and human rights violations since the so-called First Congo War in 1996-1997. Almost immediately after the first war ended, the Second Congo War broke out and lasted between 1998-2003—when the Sun City Agreement was signed on the luxury resort Sun City in South Africa, in an attempt at peace between the warring parties.
Unfortunately, not long after the agreement was signed, another conflict erupted. Almost 30 years later since the first war, the subsequent conflicts have left the region in a state of constant turmoil. Widespread violence, mass displacement, and conflict-related sexual violence continue to be a constant in the country.
Many of The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s local partner organisations in the DRC are witnessing this violence first-hand. Our latest report on gender-based violence in conflict-affected areas includes testimonials from women’s rights activists working directly to combat, and raise awareness of, conflict-related violence in the DRC.
The conflicts in eastern DRC have been characterised by extreme violence and brutality, including widespread and systematic use of sexual violence and other forms gender-based violence, primarily targeting women and girls.
“Ever since the wars in the 1990s, there has been extreme sexual violence; including mass rape, gang rape, rape with a weapon, with murder, with pillage, and with great humiliation, conducted in front of the family, in front of the husband, in front of the children. The aim is to intimidate society, intimidate the community, crush human dignity, scare men so that the community does not rebel, take away men’s pride and break women,” says Clotilde Bangwene Aziza, founder of Association des Femmes des Médias du Sud-Kivu (AFEM), one of The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s partner organisations in the DRC.
The sexual violence has been used by militias to intimidate and punish communities and to control territory. Rape and sexual torture have been perpetrated systematically to destroy communities, humiliate families, and crush victims’ and survivors’ lives.
It is important to note that the sexual violence, while worsened by the conflicts, is rooted in pre-existing societal issues—reflecting a very traditional patriarchal structure in DRC. Even before the conflict, the country grappled with high levels of domestic violence and intimate partner violence. The stigmatisation of victims and survivors has led to many women not reporting the crime or seek medical support.
“Women who are beaten at home don’t dare denounce it. We’ve had cases of women tortured by their husband or their family, but it is rare that this is reported. Likewise, a woman who has been raped isn’t favourably looked upon by society, she has little chance of getting married. So, it is rare for women to report having been raped,” says Ghislaine Bisimwa from Association des Femmes Juristes Congolaises.
Like in many other conflict-affected contexts, the women’s rights organisations in the DRC were founded to fill a gap in addressing the needs of women and girls. Activists and journalists have worked tirelessly to expose the conflict-related sexual violence and address the societal norms perpetuating gender-based violence.
The first challenge for women’s rights organisations was to break the silence around the issue and get attention from both authorities and the media. Women journalists have faced both death threats from armed groups and threats of being shut down by state actors.
“One day, I was summoned by the rebel authorities. They said ‘It’s this woman who’s been saying on the radio that we’re raping [women]’. I was threatened with rape and they asked me to give up, but I told them that I wouldn’t, that if they would do good things, I would report it and that if they continued to rape, I would report it. They were shocked by my courage,” says Clotilde Bangwene Aziza.
Reporting on the sexual violence paved the way for organisations to start documenting them and share the information to the International Criminal Court. However, documenting cases of gender-based violence was, and still is, challenging—many victims and survivors are afraid of being stigmatised and persecuted for coming forward.
During the process leading up to the Sun City Agreement in 2003, women’s rights organisations came together in eastern DRC to ensure that the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war would by highlighted and addressed in the peace agreement. When it became clear that the final agreement did not mention sexual violence the women changed their strategy and started to campaign for a national legislation on fighting sexual violence against women instead. The law was passed three years later and was a big milestone for the women’s movement. Since then, different women’s rights organisations have been pushing for the law to also include domestic violence.
Today, these organisations continue to also champion gender equality and lasting change through advocacy and peacebuilding initiatives. Amongst them is the national network Rien Sans Les Femmes: With over 400 members, both individual activists and women’s rights organisations, they remain committed to advocating for women’s participation in peace and dialogue processes.
“We had to elbow ourselves into the room to have a seat at the table. We may not go to war, but we do suffer from it, so we had to share our point of view with the combatants. Our weapon is Resolution 1325, which gives us the right to participate in the process,” says Mathilde Muhindo Mwamini, former director of the Center Olame and member of the Congolese Transitional Government.
In the face of prolonged conflict, women’s rights organisations in the DRC have played a fundamental role in protecting women and girls. Their tireless efforts in documenting violence, lobbying for legal advancements, and mobilising for advocacy have been instrumental in creating lasting change.
As the struggle for gender equality continues, these activists remain beacons of hope, embodying resilience and determination in the pursuit of a more just and equal society in the DRC.
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