My homeland, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has been nominated as the “rape capital of the world” by UN Special Representative Margot Wallstrom. The American Journal of Public Health has reported that 48 women are raped every hour in Eastern Congo. In this day and age you might expect there to be a powerful uprising of militant women activists, vehemently denouncing such animalistic behaviors and demanding with deafening force an end to the violence done to their sisters, mothers, and daughters. But when one is trying to fight evil from the inside of hell itself, you’ve got learn just how much pressure you can apply before you find the flames set to engulf you.
Enter the Gloria Steinem of the Congo, Chouchou Namegabe (pronounced shoo-shoo). As a radio journalist in DRC, Chouchou has been actively engaged in this fight: on the air since before these atrocities began, an activist before anyone in this country knew what an activist was. “I remember in 1999 when the reports began to come in that these militias were raping women, and we didn’t have a word for rape in Swahili,” she told me. Such things were culturally taboo to speak about, so no words had crept into our common language. Chouchou and her fellow activists came across a word from the Swahili dialect in Tanzania—ubakaji—that has since become commonplace in our local language.
Chouchou grew up in a typical household in Eastern Congo, where the radio was off limits for the women of the house. As one seemingly born to make a way where there is no way, Chouchou started her radio broadcast career at only 17 years of age. Two years later civil war broke out, and before long rebel factions shut down the station. In 2001 the station reopened, and Chouchou, by now a horrified young journalist, was determined to use her skills to engage in the fight. Her idea was to give a voice to the victims, enabling them to give anonymous accounts of their otherwise unspeakably savage treatment as involuntary weapons of war. Now some 10 years after her first interview, her weekly programs are broadcast on 19 radio stations. And with over 400 interviews recorded through the years, she’s made personal for countless listeners the fact that the pages of this sadistic chronicle—which affects every family in every territory of the Congo—are still being written.
You can imagine this commitment is met daily with heartache. One of Chouchou’s more painful interviews was with a 5 to 7-year-old girl who had been raped and then further abused with sticks from thorn bushes. When Chouchou met with her in the hospital, the little girl’s female organs had been removed and she was incontinent. She looked at Chouchou and asked, “Will I ever be a woman?” Chouchou could only cry in response.
The banner over the busy office building where I met with Chouchou reads South Kivu Women’s Media Association (AFEM). Chouchou co-founded this organization in 2003 and immediately began training women to create a force of female journalists to promote women’s rights. AFEM teaches journalists how to approach victims in order to win their confidence and help them tell their stories. The association also created its own production studio to develop weekly radio programs that are broadcast over the airwaves of various partner stations.
In 2006, AFEM started the Listeners' Club, distributing radios to women in seven of South Kivu’s eight territories. Focusing on rural areas, Chouchou and AFEM use radios to bring women together and train them in the necessity and art of sharing their stories with one another. Every woman trained becomes a trainer/facilitator, who then takes the Listeners’ Club to her village, with or without a radio. As a result, women who were brought up to never speak about rape and violence against women are now sensitized to the idea of opening up to one another, and the Listeners’ Clubs have continued to proliferate.
In September of this year, with the national election two months away, AFEM invited 15 leading government authorities in South Kivu to a conference to discuss their commitment to fight violence against women—what they were doing, and what they planned to do if re-elected. The governor, the vice governor, the president of parliament, and others all RSVP’d. But on the day of the conference, not a single authority was represented. Chouchou made a number of calls to those invited, and unbelievably all said they were traveling and not in the capital. The media on the other hand, had shown up in great force and the event became a press conference, with Chouchou behind the microphone. She opened with a bold statement, “This is another case of gender-based violence, this time by our government! They didn’t even delegate someone from their staffs to attend.”
Chouchou remains focused, always on point. After testifying before the US Senate in 2009, she was asked whether she wanted to return to the Congo. When she responded yes, she was pressed, “You are sure? You are not afraid?”
“Congo is where I must be," she answered firmly.
When I asked her if she would ever want to enter politics, Chouchou told me, “No, I am working to support other women in that area.” This year, in preparation for the national and upcoming local elections, AFEM held awareness seminars through the rural areas to get women involved in the process, and interviewed all the female candidates on their radio programs. “I believe in women,” she said. “I believe women will transform this country. And I’m into revolution!”