Meet Goma's own champion for the rights of women and children.
Congolese human rights defender and World Pulse Correspondent Passy Mubalama is the eldest of twelve children and the only one of her family to finish high school and college. She grew up witnessing the abuse of women in her family and community and felt powerless to stop it. Despite the prejudice against women who study in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in spite of the difficult conditions in which she lived, she was determined to complete her studies so that she might go on to help women learn and stand up for their rights.
Q&A With Passy Mubalama
"This needs to be our first mission – to work hard together to help women in our communities know their rights and claim them."
Passy Mubalama: I am 29 years old and the founder of Action and Development Initiatives to Protect Women and Children (AIDPROFEN Association), a nonprofit organization based in Goma in eastern DRC. With AIDPROFEN Association I campaign to promote Congolese women's rights in the province of North Kivu, where I have been working as a human rights defender for four years.
Since 1994 the DRC has been politically unstable and embroiled in ethnic conflict fueled by several armed rebel groups in the country, some local and some foreign. Since April 2012 clashes between the M23 rebel group and the military, the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC), have rocked North Kivu.
Many war crimes are committed by the rebels, and as the statistics show, the consequences of war have been devastating to the region. Every day in eastern DRC the number of people dying, injured, or displaced increases. North Kivu now has a total 967,050 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Unfortunately the majority of the displaced are women and children living in difficult and dangerous circumstances.
How did you know that advocating for the rights of women and children was what you wanted to do with your life?
As a 10-year-old in 1994, when Rwandan refugees fleeing genocide flooded North Kivu, I witnessed things a child my age could not bear – killings, people starving, domestic violence, as well as many cases of sexual and gender-based violence in my family and community. It was very difficult for me to grow up in such conditions. I felt continually stressed. Still today human rights violations in the DRC are too numerous to count, especially acts of violence against women.
I grew up seeing how women were abused by their husbands but were condemned by customs and traditions to keep silent. It is disturbing to me to find that still today the Congolese community holds a lot of prejudice against women and believes they are weak. Many people in the DRC are still convinced that women cannot occupy decision-making positions like that of national or provincial deputy, school director, or university professor.
In addition to the cultural challenges women face, wars and armed conflicts have continued to destabilize the region and greatly impact women and children.
Displaced women and children live in camps without food, without clothes, and are vulnerable to sexual violence, sexual slavery by armed groups, abduction, murder, torture, and other atrocities. This entire situation shocks me every day. I decided to work hard all my life to see if and how I could do something to change it. I made the choice to advocate for women’s and children’s rights all my life!
What are successes you have witnessed?
The successes are many. Through AIDPROFEN Association I have installed local Women's Committees where women gather and discuss their rights. In these committees, we also talk about how we can contribute to the establishment of peace in eastern DRC. I have also organized many conferences and awareness sessions with young students on the topic of women's rights. We have discussed issues such as women’s financial rights and their right to work. Today more women are informed about their rights and able to monitor and report any violations of them. This is a great success for us. Before, that was impossible. Women were not previously reporting violations against their rights as they were condemned by customs and traditions to keep silent.
By way of example I will share the following story of a woman previously silenced by abuse later empowered by the AIDPROFEN women’s committee to fight for her rights: Esperance* is a mother of five children. For several years she has been subjected to domestic and sexual violence by her husband, but always suffered in silence. Her children also suffered and were kept out of school because her husband did not give her money to support them.
When Esperance began attending the local women’s committee AIDPROFEN, she started to learn about her rights. After a year of education, she explained her problem to the group. With AIDPROFEN’s counseling and legal support, Esperance resolved to go to court to claim her rights for her sake and the sake of her children.
The judge ruled in her favor, requiring her husband to stop beating her and to give her money to buy food for the children. For the time being Esperance and her children are happy. In AIDPROFEN we continue to teach her about her rights and also provide her with some work. This helps her take care of herself and fortify her independence.
What do you see as the greatest challenge to securing the rights of women and children in the DRC?
The biggest challenge today is the continued armed conflict and wars that characterize the region of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo where we live. Working as an advocate for human rights in general and being a women's rights defender in particular in such a situation is not easy. In addition to my being a survivor of various forms of violence and discrimination in my society simply because I am a woman, the political and security situation in the DRC does not let me as a human rights defender work in peace. Very often I am the target of armed groups and politicians who do not want their violations of human rights reported.
Another significant challenge to women and children’s rights is the Congolese legal system. Legislation that advocates for their equal rights is not implemented. The judicial system in the DRC is corrupt and thus impunity reigns. Even if perpetrators of human rights violations are brought to justice, they may be released immediately after their arrests and move freely in the community. This greatly threatens survivors’ security.
How has the current situation in Goma impacted women and children in your community and your work?
In Goma we live in insecurity and constant anxiety. We can no longer travel in the city after 6 pm because the only form of transport, the motorcycle taxi, was banned to prevent murder. To stay safe women and children make sure they are home by 6 pm, but still live in perpetual fear.
Children simply lose hope of living. They see their future destroyed; some have lost their parents, some are forced to integrate with the armed forces or rebel groups, and others are out on the streets because they have nowhere to go.
The security situation affects all aspects of my life including my work. Often I see friends, brothers and sisters, and other family members die and leave behind orphans who are themselves victims of violence. Sometimes gunfire and the sound of bombs going off prevent me from going to the office or meeting with survivors of abuse.
It has also been difficult for me to sleep well when I know that there are many other women and children like me who are suffering. They don’t have food or clothes and they sleep outside. Every day we are stressed, but I am still convinced that I can help women and children to live their lives in a better way.
What advice do you have for young future women leaders?
I ask other young women who might be future leaders in the world to be brave, to be courageous, and to make the campaign for women and children's rights their priority. This needs to be our first mission – to work hard together to help women in our communities know their rights and claim them. Ultimately we want to ensure that women's rights are respected in all countries.
*Name has been changed.