By Kim Crane
We polled 1,000 women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo via text message to learn about the challenges and opportunities for women’s leadership. Here’s what they had to say.
A woman in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo receives a text message from an unrecognized number. It is asking for her message of peace. Maybe she pauses for a moment to weigh her answer. Perhaps she is surprised by the question. She understands she is participating in a survey, but she doesn’t know who is on the other end reading these words. She taps out her plea: To all the different countries of the world, open your eyes and ears so you can see and hear the women of the Congo.
In June, World Pulse used Mobile Accord’s GeoPoll service to anonymously survey 1,000 women via SMS across the four provinces of eastern DRC. Among them was this woman, imploring the world to listen to her voice.
Her country has been dubbed the rape capital of the world by UN officials. It has been called the worst place on Earth to be a woman. The New York Times recently named the conflict in eastern Congo the ‘world’s worst war,’ and the word ‘hell’ features prominently in news reports about the region. For years we have relied on these perverse superlatives to tell the story a population traumatized by violence. There are numbers too: 16 years of war. Over 6 million people killed. There were 48 women raped every hour during one period of the conflict, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public health.
And then there is this number: 83.5%. This is the percentage of women in our survey—women in the most conflict-affected regions of the Congo—who say they are interested in leadership training. This number represents the aspiration gap between roles Congolese women currently occupy in their society and the roles they envision for themselves. And it speaks to the potential for radical transformation, another of Congo’s many stories. “We want women to take responsibility,” says grassroots leader Neema Namadamu, “to take our future. Not to be victims only, but to be leaders.”
Namadamu is helping realize that vision by giving local women in her city of Bukavu in the South Kivu province of DRC a space where they can speak their minds. She has helped 200 women connect to the Internet, provided coveted computer access and training, and enabled women who have never had an email account to share their ideas with the world. They call themselves the Maman Shujaa, or ‘Hero Women’ and their voices are already making waves. The group authored a joint statement that was delivered to the African Union this week, and they launched an online petition headed to the the White House that has garnered well over 100,000 signatures.
They contributed to World Pulse’s global digital action campaign on ending violence against women despite facing some of the steepest barriers to participation. The very challenges women in DRC are speaking out against—women’s exclusion from public life, low literacy, and the poverty, lack of infrastructure, and insecurity of their country—limit opportunities for their messages to be heard. Only 1.2% of the population are Internet users, according to the International Telecommunication Union.
In contrast, the proportion of DRC’s population with mobile phone subscriptions is at 23% and sharply climbing. World Pulse seized on this opportunity to bring more women’s voices into the global conversation on violence against women and the issues that affect women’s lives in the Congo.
World Pulse worked with Mobile Accord to design and deliver a series of ten questions to women in eastern DRC through SMS. The survey addressed topics ranging from personal experiences with sexual violence, the challenges women face in their communities as a result of conflict, to their roles as peacemakers. Volunteers worked to translate responses from French to English and to make the results available and accessible online in both languages. The data, which relies largely on open-ended questions, is sortable by the age and region of each participant, and provides rich insight into the diversity of women’s views and experiences in DRC.
Women Hold the Solutions
When asked what challenges their communities face in terms of conflict, some women said they did not face any at all. Others touched on factors indirectly related to conflict, such as a lack of economic opportunity or the involvement of foreign powers. Others describe a laundry list of social ills.
“There is war, huge displacement of the population, famine, infectious diseases, and lack of hygiene, violence towards men and women, lack of education for children,” says one respondent. Another cites “the lack of running water and electricity, employment, and a shortage in schools, which means girls marry too early.”
It is within this broader context that Galya Benarieh Ruffer, director of the Center for Forced Migration Studies at Northwestern University, places the issue of sexual violence, which the international community has increasingly recognized as a chief concern for women. She suggests that foreign interventions based on a narrow, sensationalized definition of sexual violence in warfare tend to distort the bigger picture of women’s realities in the Congo, ignore men’s roles in the work to end violence, and allocate resources in ways that incentivize women to claim victimhood. Many survey respondents seem to be calling for a major shift towards equality at all levels of society. And as Ruffer emphasizes, “This kind of change can’t happen if it’s just imported by international [organizations].” It must be owned locally.
“When we talk with grassroots community women,” echoes Namadamu, “they have solutions for family, for community, for country, for continent, for the world.”
The number one solution to end violence against women cited in this survey is the need to address the legal system. “Impunity reigns,” declares Desiree Lwambo, Gender Advisor at HEAL Africa. And this is true of all cases, not just sexual violence. “Processes are costly, proceedings questionable; anyone can be bought. The state is not weak by any means, it is very present and strong when it comes to extracting money through taxation or oppressing opposition and criticism. Yet is strikingly absent when it comes to providing services or protecting the population.”
Finding justice through legal routes is simply not an option for most survivors of sexual violence. “Most rapes,” says Ruffer, “happen within a community, and even what we think of as military rapes are men who are 'local bandits,' known to the community, and part of the community.”
Several survey respondents opened heartbreaking windows into the hidden violence that occurs in the homes, and other trusted spaces. One woman wrote of being abused by her uncle. Another wrote of the sexual advances of a teacher and a minister that had traumatized her to the point where she could no longer go to school.
Ruffer explains that if a girl manages to overcome taboos to actually report the rape, and in the event that there is actually a conviction, the neighbors are angry with her for taking a productive man out of the community. “They are mad at her, not at him” she says. “They may think she’s just trying to get money. If she’s a young girl they say ‘Why don’t you marry the guy?’ Girls in this situation would like to be able to move to a different community, but there’s nowhere to move. “
Women Lead the Way
“We don’t know where to go to talk about ourselves,” says Namadamu, describing widespread silencing of women that extends far beyond the legal system. Women in DRC lack avenues to participate in public space. And women who do stand up and take public leadership roles face backlash in their community. “Those who want to talk are killed,” reads one chilling survey response, underscoring how dire the consequences can be for women who speak out. Women may be positioned to lead, says Lwambo, but “a lot of these same women never get to realize their potential.”
“This survey shows that there is an injustice being committed against women,” adds Ruffer. "The injustice is that there’s a lack of leadership opportunities in local governance among women and a lack of education for women.”
Rectifying this injustice and creating a climate for women to realize their potential as full participants in society is key to moving forward and turning the tide against a host of overwhelming challenges facing DRC.
Woman after woman cited tribalism and division along ethnic lines as a major challenge facing her community. The survey results also suggest that women may be poised to make strides in bridging these divides. While women may lack visible outlets for leadership, they hold many of the keys to change. They are active in religious life, education, and social services—institutions with the power to promote peace and combat gender-based violence.
“As host of the local health sector,” says one survey respondent. “I play an important role in raising awareness.”
“Women often play a much larger role than they personally admit,” says Desiree Lwambo. “Yet their influence is often the ‘back door’ type.”
Many women indicated the desire to move into more traditionally male dominated leadership roles such as lawyers and politicians, while others emphasize opportunities for women to work together, build a peace movement, and bring about change outside of formal leadership. Both are vital.
“In conflict,” Lwambo explains, “‘female’ qualities become devalued where the right of the strongest rules.” These are qualities that are in sore need of restoration in DRC.
Violence hasn’t just taken its toll on women, but on all members of society who depend on the family and community support systems women have traditionally held together. Or as one survey respondent put it, “We must never violate mothers because we cannot live in peace without mom.”
Heeding Women’s Calls for Peace
As with any survey, this one has its limitations. While mobile technology can reach more women than online efforts alone, this survey still excludes women who don’t have cell phone access, those who are not literate (which represents 43% of women in DRC), and those who don’t speak French (French is the official language of DRC, but much of the population speaks only Swahili or local languages).
Also the interpretation of survey questions can be influenced by cultural context, down to the very definition of rape and abuse. 11.8% of women in our survey reported that they had experienced sexual abuse. This is an appalling number in its own right, but there are discrepancies among different studies and many cite even higher numbers. A recent study reported that one third of men in DRC admitted to committing sexual violence. There are strong taboos in place in the Congo against discussing rape. Also, an adult woman raped by her husband or someone else known to her may not be considered a victim of sexual violence by her community. Women in the Congo may have the most direct and immediate knowledge about violence against them, but “if you don’t recognize your own body as your own,” says Ruffer, “and your entitlement to own it, then you don’t necessarily know you’re being abused.”
We may still be learning how to ask the questions, but there is so much to hear in these answers. This survey scratches the surface, but delivers clear messages on women’s desire to participate, to be heard, to air their visions of peace.
“If I can manage to put two words in our hearts, It will be: Love and Forgiveness,” writes one survey participant.
Maybe there’s nothing new in these words, but there is a power in their repetition throughout the survey responses. Love may not appear on any policy road map, but it shows up in force in this survey. Alongside women’s concrete suggestions on how they can work together to build peace, these sentiments indicate a seed of unity that could one day emerge into a game-changing peace movement.
Foreign journalists and other outsiders have the luxury of declaring Congo hopeless, as some have done, or writing off the plight of women in the Congo as simply tragic. But Congolese women themselves do not have that luxury. At World Pulse, we see women in DRC holding together the threads of broken communities and dreaming of what they might do with more support and opportunity. “Nothing should prevent a woman to go towards her future and achieve her destiny,” declares another participant.
If there is a single takeaway that runs through these thousands of survey responses from women across ethnicities and geographies, with varying life circumstances and sometimes conflicting opinions, it is the very fact of these women themselves, striving in all their diversity and humanity for a better future. Gathered together, their voices bolster Neema Namadamu’s resounding message to the world: Congo is not a lost cause.