Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Struggle for Women's Rights in DRC

(A Comparison with the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. in the 60’s)
Not only does the conflict, rape and killing continue in north east Congo as scattered bands of Rwandan Hutus (Federation Démocratique Liberation de Rwanda, FDLR), many of whom are former genocidaires who fled Rwanda when the Tutsi’s prevailed, there is yet another difficult if not desperate conflict being fought here every day. It is the fight to liberate the minds of men and women from old and abusive views of the status and role of women. It is the fight to emancipate women from the prison of perceptions of Congolese people that women are lesser beings, objects to be beaten if not obedient, forced into marriage at young ages, deprived of inheritance and property, and whose loss of innocence and virginity can be compensated for with a goat.
During the summer of 1965 I was a civil rights worker in Mississippi. As I reminisce about that summer, I find it helpful in my work here to compare the civil rights movement of the 60’s in the U.S. with the struggle of women to seek equality and self-fulfillment here. There are similarities and, of course, significant differences in these struggles.
B. Similarities between the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and Promotion of Gender Justice in the Congo.
1. Oppressed classes of persons.
a. American Blacks. Taking the Emancipation Proclamation (1862) as a starting point, over a hundred years passed from that declaration of freedom until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were enacted. During those years, Black Americans were subjected to indignities and deprivation in all aspects of life—and to name but a few, education, accommodations, voting, and justice. Such deprivation was imposed under the color of laws, designed to separate and suppress Blacks from the rest of society. During the 1960’s, the civil rights movement reached its fullest momentum. Blacks throughout the south, with assistance from their brothers and sisters throughout the nation, protested, sat in, marched, demonstrated, brought lawsuits, boycotted white businesses and eventually were able to make significant progress in achieving equal rights under the law and application of those rights in day to day life.
b. Congolese Women. Notwithstanding the Constitutional guarantee of equal rights to Congolese women, a Constitutional ban upon, and a variety of penal codes forbidding, sexual violence, Congolese women do not enjoy equality and are subjected to emotional and physical trauma. Cooking, cleaning, child care, gathering firewood, work in the fields—all such tasks appear to fall upon their shoulders, while their spouses often do little or nothing. Those women who are educated must obtain their husband’s permission to work, notwithstanding law to the contrary. A woman who disobeys her spouse or offends him in some way may be beaten, and sadly, she may well believe that she deserved to be beaten for whatever error or transgression she may have committed.
In the conflict zones, women are raped by rebels, wandering bands of militia and soldiers alike. The rapes are vicious, and often accompanied by penetration with foreign objects, resulting in fistulas that require surgery to repair, and which frequently cannot be repaired. The atmosphere of impunity for soldier and rebel rapists contributes to rape, sexual violence and cruelty committed by civilian men as well. For example, according to Richard Malengule, a Congolese attorney working in the Gender and Justice program of Heal Africa, the armed conflict is over in Maniema Province, yet the rape of women and girls persists. The rapes are committed by civilian men who, emboldened by the years of impunity for rapists, have little or no fear of any consequences for their acts of despicable violence.
2. Laws Forbidding Discrimination and Violence
U.S. In the U.S. during the 100 plus years of oppression there were laws that purported to provide for equality in some areas of life, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 expanded those protections in many important aspects of life. However, it took the continued efforts of the civil rights movement and its leaders to obtain enforcement of those rights.
DRC. Similarly, the DRC has raised to Constitutional level the guarantee of equal rights to women, prohibition of sexual violence and other civil rights. However, those rights have yet to be realized by Congolese women. Often women who have been raped are unaware that there are laws forbidding such violence. In other areas of law, they are similarly uniformed. For example, customary law is still accepted as an appropriate standard, even if it means that if a women is widowed, her brother in law may come and take all her property, evict her from her home and leave her with nothing for herself or her children. Or if the husband is widowed, his deceased wife’s younger sister may be required to marry him. Even if the woman knows her rights, enforcement is usually impossible. The costs, as discussed in the blog of Oct 15, are a huge barrier, as are the corroption, delays and failures to enforce judgments.
3. The Church
The church was the center of African American social, religious and political life in the South during the height of the Civil Right Movement. Civil rights workers were welcome in the churches and invited to address the congregations during Sunday service or at special evening meetings to discuss the civil rights movement, urge registration of children in the newly desegregated schools and encourage registration to vote.
Education and empowerment of women are the keys to change in the Congo. Numerous non-governmental organizations (NGO) and faith based organizations (FBO) are at the heart of the efforts to undo the old, traditional ways of regarding the roles of men and women, urging women to reject their suppression and treatment as second class citizens. The Nehemiah Committees in north east Congo, consisting of men and women of faith who often are leaders in their congregations and villages, reach out to men and women, conducting programs designed to show how the traditional bad treatment and submission of women not only are counter to the law but also to commands found both in the Bible and the Koran. The Gender and Justice Program of Heal Africa has developed syllabi that are used in schools and community meetings to teach children and adults about the legal and religious basis for equal treatment and dignity of the sexes. Indeed, starting with the children is so important because of the inherent difficulties in getting older men who are used to their power and position and older women who are indoctrinated by a lifetime of suppression to accept change.

C. Major Significant Differences between the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and Promotion of Gender Justice in the Congo.
1. Unification of the Persons Seeking Change.
a. U.S. Blacks throughout the nation were unified in their quest to secure equal rights, opportunities, education and employment, and in all areas and activities common to private and public life. While the many organizations and individuals working in the movement did not always agree on the methods to reach their goals, they shared the common goal of bringing an end to racial discrimination.
b. In the Congo, we are faced with the delicate problem of elevating women to positions of equality in the face of a tradition and culture which is the antithesis of such goals. Congolese men occupy, and indubitably enjoy, their positions of superiority and authority. The efforts to elevate the status of women risk the alienation of men; such alienation might well drive a wedge between husband and wife, with the risk of destabilizing the family. Persuasive arguments must be mustered that convince men that it is to their advantage to free women and allow them to fully develop their abilities and potential so as to contribute to the well-being of family, community and state.
2. Governmental Support
a. In the U.S., the federal government supported the Civil Rights Movement. Troops were utilized to protect students entering desegregated schools and universities. The Federal Bureau of Investigation pursued and brought to justice perpetrators of racial killings and beatings. The Department of Justice appointed Federal Voting Examiners to register Black Americans to vote in counties where violence and intimidation had intimidated and dissuaded African Americans from voting.

b. In the DRC, other than words in the Constitution and laws, there is little evidence of governmental activity to advance women’s rights and protect them from sexual violence. Indeed, with tens of thousands of rapes and other sexual assaults over the past 2 or three years, there have been an insignificant number of prosecutions, only a fraction of those resulting in convictions, and even with convictions, inexplicable delays in imposition of judgment and sentence. Those who do get sent to prison often are able to buy their way out or easily escape from prisons that are falling apart.

In the U.S. there are governmental victim-witness protection programs. They do not exist here, except as provided by NGO’s or FBO’s, such as Heal Africa’s Wamama Simameni (women stand together) security house for victims of rape.


Effective change comes from the people. Did the Kennedy and Johnson administrations one day decide to push for civil rights and voting rights legislation? They did not. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were the products of freedom rides, sit ins, demonstrations, arrests, beatings, church bombings, murders of civil rights workers, countless little groups meeting in simple one room churches throughout the South, whose meetings ended in a chorus that inspired a nation:

“We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
“We shall overcome someday,
“Oh deep in my heart I do believe
“That we shall overcome someday.”

There are good laws here in DRC. It remains for dedicated Congolese men and women, international organizations , FBO’s, NGO’s and the hundreds of volunteers who are here to make those laws work in everyday life.

The struggle will be long, the sacrifices many, but we shall overcome.

1 comment:

  1. Kerry, Thank you for such a concise and powerful explanation of the current situation, reminder of the struggles that lie ahead, and description of the challenges to overcome. One step at a time.