It has now been two weeks since I arrived in the DRC, although it feels more like two months. Slipping back into life in Uvira happened instantly, almost like sliding into a different skin, the skin of a mzungu (white person) in Congo. My arrival in Uvira was followed less than a week later by the arrival of our Director at the Advocacy Project, Iain Guest, and a whirlwind tour to meet all of our staff based in Fizi territory, and check up on the progress of our 2011 projects, as well as a trip north to Bukavu, to meet with United Nations representatives working on sexual violence and human rights in South Kivu.
Much of our trip to Fizi was centred around one of the most important initiatives which SOS FED staff have been working on this year, that of risk reduction – a set of projects designed to limit women’s exposure to sexual violence. In 2010, an emerging pattern became clear to centre managers – many women were targeted whilst alone cultivating in their fields, or travelling through forest and other unpopulated areas to collect water or firewood. This trend was later supported by a United Nations Fund Population Analysis (UNFPA) report on rape statistics in South Kivu, published in June this year. The report finds that 118 women were raped in Fizi between January and April 2011 (although in reality the figure is undoubtedly higher), and perhaps more worryingly, that 21% of those raped were girls under the age of 18 (4% of those raped were girls on their way to school). As SOS FED had identified, 40% were raped in the forest, whilst fetching water, or whilst cultivating in their fields.
The well will serve 600 women and girls in the area (who in turn, of course, collect water for the entire family). It crucially provides them with clean water (during the rainy season, water from the Lake becomes dirty as mud is washed downstream from the highlands, and Tanganika is plagued by bilharzia all year round), and of course, a source of water which is closer to home. These key aspects mean healthier families, and ensure that the daily journey to fetch water for drinking, cooking and cleaning is shorter, and above all, safer for the women and girls of the village, minimising their risks of being subjected to sexual violence.
Another risk-reduction initiative that SOS staff have been working on is a communal cultivation project. Centre managers and staff, and those recovering in the centres, developed a forum where women could get together and brainstorm preventative measures that they could take to limit their risk of being subjected sexual violence, empowering women to take the lead in developing a strategy to protect themselves. Together they decided that cultivating in groups would decrease their vulnerability to attacks, and make raising the alarm swifter should incidents occur. Beneficiaries, in addition to women from the surrounding community, have formed working groups of 8, who split the harvest and profits of selling their produce. SOS FED have hired 41 hectares of land in Mboko and Kikonde, a village further south which hosts a second SOS aftercare centre, bringing in local agronomists to provide expertise on the most effective means of cultivation and harvesting to ensure greater yields. 84 women in total are benefitting from the scheme this year, and together they have harvested an impressive total of just under 5,000kg of cassava!!!
In addition to protection, the initiative is intended to be a form of economic empowerment for those involved, meaning that they can be self-reliant, providing for themselves and their families. SOS FED have organised for produce to be transported to Uvira, where cassava sells for 10X the price it does in Mboko and Kikonde (since everyone cultivates their own produce in rural villages, prices are extremely low). The women are then given 70% of the profits made, with 30% going back to SOS FED to sustain and improve the cultivation scheme. We are hoping the initiative will expand well beyond SOS FED and become an empowering strategy for women all around South Kivu to protect and provide for themselves, as women leaving the centres take the initiative back to their villages and start cultivation groups of their own, as one woman has already done in a village north of Mboko.
Meeting the centre staff, who are incredibly strong individuals, having lived through over twenty years of conflict, instability and violence themselves, and who are committed to improving the lives of women in South Kivu, was a truly humbling experience. Seeing the impact that SOS FED’s work is having, not just on its own beneficiaries, but also on women in the local community, gives great hope for the future, demonstrating just how much the people of eastern Congo are capable of achieving at the grassroots level, without the huge overhead budgets and the plethora of dollars down the drain that larger organisations are guilty of spending, often to little effect for the people of Congo.
However, despite ray of hope that SOS provides for the women of Fizi, our visit ended on a more sobering note, as we were forced to spend an extra day down south due to attacks on the road between Mboko and Uvira. Since the beginning of April there have been several attacks by armed men, allegedly mai-mai and demobilised soldiers, on trucks travelling on the main road between Baraka and Fizi. On August 3rd, two trucks were pillaged, and there were 8 confirmed rape incidents in Ilila, a village around 15 minutes from Mboko. Two of the women attacked are now being cared for at the SOS FED centre in the village. This was followed, during our short visit to Fizi, by two further attacks. One took place in Senza, 5 minutes north of Mboko, where a reported 13 women were raped – although this figure may increase, since many are still missing in the bush after fleeing the violence. In a separate incident, there were unconfirmed reports of a mass rape in Kananda, a village near Fizi centre which hosts a braçage centre for integrating former rebel armed groups into the national army. In June, ex-PARECO combatants deserted the centre, led by Colonel Kifaru, and proceeded to rape over 150 women in Nyakiele, a nearby village, before being re-accepted into another integration centre further north. As yet, the perpetrators have not been reprimanded, nor brought before any form of justice. Read Walter James’s excellent reports on Nyakiele here.
The above incidents provide a sobering insight into the situation for the people of Fizi territory, and prompt serious questions of the joint stabilisation initiative (STAREC) being carried out by MONUSCO (the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the Congo) and the Congolese government. The two incidents on the 3rd and 16th of August were carried out on the main road between Baraka and Uvira, both towns which host a significant population of United Nations Peacekeeping troops, on a mandate to protect the civilian population. In neither case, did the blue helmets intervene to halt violations. The incident of Nyakiele (and perhaps a further incident in Kananda which is yet to be confirmed) was carried out by troops being integrated into the Congolese army, the arm of the state designed to provide protection to its citizens. If the international community continues to turn a blind eye to the frankly, horrifying atrocities being committed, particularly against women, in South Kivu, if those mandated to protect the civil population continue to neglect their protection duties, and worse, if the reintegration measures continue to falter, and former rebel groups continue to actively and brutally violate the rights of Congolese citizens, one cannot help but fear for the future of eastern Congo, and its long-suffering civilian population.
Posted By Charlie Walker
Posted Aug 22nd, 2011