After weeks of nervous waiting, I recently got the good news that a colleague of mine here in Uvira, Marceline, has been selected by the Washington DC NGO Vital Voices to be honored this March at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts for the work she has done with rape victims and threatened women in Congo. Vital Voices is dedicated to recognizing emerging women leaders across the world, especially those working in regions where women are regularly relegated to the margins of society. No better place to draw the world’s attention to than Congo.
When I began to speak with Marceline over the last six months about the work she has been doing in eastern Congo, I knew I had to nominate her to be recognized, and hopefully the global recognition the Vital Voices Awards will offer Marceline will enable her to continue working to empower women in an part of the world where women are regularly and systematically victimized. Though only 22, Marceline has been the head (she’s the founder, too) of an NGO called SOS Femmes en Dangers since 2003. Her organization attempts to empower women by informing them of their rights and educating them on how to better protect themselves. Given that the conflict in Congo refuses to let up, Marceline believes it is important to prepare women to deal with this insecurity and that education can serve as a primary defense mechanism. In addition, Marceline works to rebuild the shattered psyches of women who have been violently raped and enslaved by the various armed groups present in South Kivu (Mai-Mai, FDD-Burundi, FDLR/Interahawme-Rwanda), those armed groups which have come and gone already (RCD-Goma-Rwanda, FNL-Burundi), and the ever-present menace personified by the Congolese military, the FARDC. It is a huge problem to be tackling, and Marceline regularly makes the trip over dangerous roads south to Fizi territory, where her work is concentrated, to make her contribution. In addition, Marceline has taken responsibility of hundreds of orphaned girls, educating them on how to protect themselves from sexual violence, where to seek help, and even lobbying and negotiating with local schools to find money so that they can continue to study. SOS Femmes en Dangers also documents and reports on the ever-growing number of sexual assaults and incidences of rape in South Kivu, which Marceline hopes will diminish the atmosphere of complete impunity in Congo in which these violations continue to occur. Thus, she really attacks the issue of violence from all angles, starting to empower women during their youth, responding to women who have already been victimized, and urging the government to pay attentions to the lives lived by women in Congo.
Marceline’s history reflects the history of conflict in Congo well, and links her directly with the women she aims to empower. As she put it, a life of fleeing and fear made her, “…a stronger advocate for suffering people.” Between 1996 and 2004, Marceline crossed numerous provinces, fleeing fighting yet always finding it again upon arrival in a new location. Early in her years as an internally displaced person, her family was ordered to “give” her as a wife for a high-ranking local official, and when they refused, they were all imprisoned. These types of stories are all too common here. Her witnessing of the atrocities suffered in particular by women and children along the route and in the groups of refugees traveling through eastern Congo motivated her to do something when she had the chance. Though her father and brother were killed along the route by Ugandan soldiers near Kisangani, Marceline and parts of her family eventually made it back home to South Kivu, and Marceline went to work immediately beginning SOS Femmes en Dangers with her pocket money and depending on a strong core of local volunteers to get things moving.
Conducting this type of work in Congo is not only emotionally and mentally difficult, but simply dangerous. The Congolese government has never looked kindly on those humanitarian workers who choose to draw attention to the horrendous treatment of women on Congolese territory and Kinshasa’s inability to protect Congolese women, and reports regularly emerge of violence targeted at women human rights workers who persist in their missions. Marceline’s dedication to her cause and her fearless pursuit of justice in an unjust place is admirable, and we are so happy she is going to be put in the spotlight this March.
So please do check the Vital Voices website and look into the upcoming event. If you’re in DC, consider going out to the event to hear Marceline’s story, as well as other women to be honored from Cambodia and Egypt. They are stories you need to hear.
I am in the process of arranging with Marceline her passport, as well as one additional field visit to Fizi, so we can take video footage to document some of the work she has done and present this in Washington DC. I’ll post the nomination me and some colleagues put together for Marceline, which provides a lot more information that I can offer in this short blog post.
Congratulations Marcelline and SOS Femmes en Dangers.
Posted By Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)
Posted Feb 13th, 2009