For the last three days, I have been working in outside of Bukavu (north of Uvira) with a local organization called the Association des Femmes des Medias du Sud Kivu (AFEM-SK), which works to develop the next generation of female journalists in Congo, offering young women practical field experience and access to the media which unfortunately isn’t readily available to women in Congo. Listening to the radio and reading through the small amount of print media available here, it is clear that Congolese media is a field largely populated by men, which leads to an often one-sided representation of current news and issues in Congo.
Because of the problems that have overwhelmed women in Congo concerning sexual violence and general second-class status, the approach of AFEM-SK is a necessary one in order to tell the entire story of what is happening in Congo. While making a field visit in Kaniola, the site of a recent massacre in which the soldiers (FDLR rebels) raped the village’s women after killing many of their husbands and their children, I saw one huge strength in AFEM-SK’s approach that I was not expecting: Speaking to a female journalist, in many instances, seems to make it easier for raped women (who often carry the well-known social stigma and shame after the incident) to tell their stories in a clear manner, to a journalist who might sympathize with their pain in ways in which a male journalist could not. As the women working for AFEM-SK are themselves all Congolese, born and raised, they are victim to the same threatening atmosphere and state-wide subjugation of women, and have the same type of fear concerning the rampant sexual violence in eastern Congo. Speaking to the rape victims profiled in Kaniola, I could see the victims relating their experiences in a brutally honest and candid manner, all in an atmosphere free from judgement or stigma. One woman, Bora, talked of being dragged into the forest and raped first by four FDLR soldiers, who then proceeded to rape her using broken-off branches of trees. While this was happening, other soldiers took her husband into the woods nearby and sodomized him. The physical pain has not subsided since, and she mentioned that the emotional pain endured is slowly eased by speaking of her experiences, in particular with other women.
The head of AEFM-SK, Chouchou Namegabe Dubisson, has also been awarded for her work in Congo by Vital Voices, and will be present in Washington D.C. with my friend Marceline. Chouchou has been active in journalism for many years, and is well known for her educational theatre pieces aired on Radio Mandeleo, which spoke of everything from how to protect women from HIV/AIDS to how to increase the amount of equality between women and men in the household. Since beginning AFEM in 2003, she has also worked with her staff to report on sexual violence in South Kivu, attempting to offer the perspective of raped women to audiences across Congo, in order to begin changing the mentality of those who accept rape in Congo as a given, and an unsolvable problem. With her experience, Chouchou also trains other women journalists, hoping to increase the amount of women present in Congolese media, especially in leadership roles. With a staff full of well-trained women journalists, fluent in the local languages as well as French, it seems that AFEM-SK is bound to succeed in promoting women in Congolese media. In addition, many of the staff members are graduates of Centre Lokole’s (Search For Common Ground) “Sisi Watoto” program for young journalists, and thus have gained lots of expertise at a young age even before working with Chouchou. Thus, AFEM-SK provides a valuable space for women graduated from the program, who are often, despite years of experience, blocked from gaining key positions in the media.
Parts of the video footage and victim profiles we took at the site of the Kaniola massacre will be shown at this year’s Vital Voices awards in Washington D.C. if you are interested in seeing the footage.
If there seems to be an overwhelming theme from these last few blog entries that sexual violence against Congolese women continues without any real promise of accountability or justice, I’d agree. However, local NGOs like SOS Femmes en Dangers and AFEM-SK work to change this, and from the last two weeks of work with both organizations, it is clear that the system, with proper pressure applied, can be changed. There are talented women in every town and village with the goal of protecting vulnerable populations. The media has continually proved itself to be an essential tool for forcing societal change, and hopefully increased recognition of those working for this will aid in the process and increase the safety of Congolese women. The FDLR are still here, but they know, as does everyone else, that there are many reporting on their violence and working to empower women to resist and force their society to change. While there is no hope for stopping sexual violence in Congo in its tracks, there is overwhelming evidence, like that which I saw in Kaniola, that there is a real opportunity to slow the tide and force the state to recognize the problem and condemn it, given the proper representation of the problem in the media by groups like AFEM-SK.
So try to get to the Vital Voices Awards in March (the 19th) if you have the chance, and hear these stories for yourselves and find out how you might be able to help Chouchou and Marceline, and in turn Congolese women in general.
Posted By Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)
Posted Mar 5th, 2009