This week finally saw the launching of our 2011 Ahadi Project. This is our main advocacy project in the Congo, where we strive to give women who have been victim to sexual violence an international platform to denounce the crimes that have been committed against them, and to share their vision of a better future for the women of Congo. The project uses embroidery as both an art therapy and advocacy tool, as women commission a local artist to draw an image which holds importance for them, and which they wish to share with the international community, and they then embroider the image onto a cloth panel.
The programme was launched in 2010 by Sylvie Bisangwa, last years AP Peace Fellow in the DRC, who worked tirelessly with women in SOS FED’s centres to record and share their messages with the outside world. Her project culminated in several ‘Ahadi Quilts’ being sewn together by women’s quilting groups in the United States, which have since been exhibited around the world to raise awareness about the issue of violence against women in the DRC.
This year, we have decided to add an income-generating aspect to the Ahadi project. As previously, women are commissioning images which are of particular significance from them and embroidering them onto panels; however this year all of the women who participate in the scheme will receive payment for her work. We will be attaching the embroidered panels to specially made shoulder bags and selling them in theUnited Statesand elsewhere, so that women all over the world will be carrying the messages of those in Congo with them.
When I arrived in Mboko on Monday, embroidery was in full swing, and the local tailor was on hand drawing up prototype bags for us to choose from. Women were sitting in the green shade of the SOS FED garden, out of the glare of the equatorial sun, surrounded by brightly coloured material, thread, and gorgeous chubby little babies of varying ages. Their images paint a kaleidoscopic picture of the disproportionate negative impact that conflict has had on women in the DRC, of what it means to be a woman in Fizi territory today, and of what they hope the future will bring for them and their daughters in years to come. Sitting chatting with these women, who have known infinitely more than their fair share of violence, conflict, and instability – and have lived to tell the tale, and keep hoping that tomorrow will bring a brighter future – several issues quickly emerge at the forefront of discussion.
Amani Leo: Peace Now
The first thing which the women unanimously make clear is simple: “the women of Congo want an end to war – we want peace”. After over a decade of experience, they have learned that if the conflict is not brought to an end, and stability achieved, the women ofCongo will continue to suffer the brunt of abuses at the hands of armed groups. The vast majority of the women, when asked what should be done to end the conflict, stressed the role of the international community – perhaps a reflexion of their disappointment at how little interest the world seems to have in solving the problems – incomprehensible to many outside the country – which continue to plague the DRC. They highlight the importance of putting external pressure on the Congolese government, who have as yet proved incapable or unwilling to end instability in the East of their own accord.
Amani Leo (Peace Now in Swahili) – their latest attempt to bring peace to the region – has spectacularly failed to curb armed activity and attacks on women.Fizi Territory has seen an increase in abuses since Mai-Mai Yakutumba took control of theUbwariPeninsula at the end of August, with open battles between them and Congolese army forces sending thousands of residents fleeing towards Baraka, and sending several new rape victims to our centre in Kikonde. Other Mai-Mai groups, such as Mupekenya which operates from the hills near to Mboko, have also shown increasing signs of violent activity, with pillaging of vehicles and rape on the rise throughout August and September.
Justice and Human Rights Training for Perpetrators: The Role of the State
If “Peace Now”, is the top refrain from women in the centres, the runner-up slot most definitely goes to challenging the impunity that rapists currently enjoy. Women involved in the Ahadi project overwhelmingly stated the government bringing perpetrators of sexual violence to justice as a fundamental part in curbing sexual violence. Currently, the number of rapists brought before court, much less prosecuted, is miniscule. Whilst irregular armed groups are evidently above the law due to their rebel status and the remote locations in which they preside, the national army also enjoys impunity when it comes to crimes against women.
Rebellious factions which have in the past defected and committed horrendous attacks of mass rape, have been welcomed back into the army with little more than a slap on the wrists, as the government fear worse consequences if they are allowed to persist outside of the national army structure. The power which this fear gives rebellious army factions sets a dangerous precedent, as it becomes clear that there are no negative consequences for brutalising the very women whom they are tasked with protecting. However, this said, it would appear that recent restructuring and training have had a positive effect on army units. Several of the women in Mboko stressed the importance of educating soldiers on human and women’s rights, and noted that soldiers who had been through recent re-training would no longer abuse women.
The Complexities of Rape: Ambivalence in Society and Culture
The final, and perhaps most complex, issue which becomes clear when talking to women involved in the Ahadi project is the impact of culture and society on violence against women in Eastern DRC. Herein lie both a hindrance and a help to the achievement of respect for women’s rights. Many women noted the importance of bringing rebels back from the bush and into the bosom of society – into the net of social norms and restrictions which restrict an individuals behaviour, and inhibit neighbours from committing abuses against neighbours. “If the groups came down from the hills and we all lived together, there would be no problem – they would no longer rape”, noted one woman. However, on the other hand, Ahadi participants universally noted that one of the greatest problems that they faced was a lack of respect for women, and women’s rights – an issue they insist is historically embedded in the culture in Fizi territory. “In the past, women have been considered like objects, and their husbands as their ‘owners’”, explains one woman. Others highlight issues of stigmatisation of society towards victims of sexual abuse, and women’s exclusion from the community if it emerges that they have been raped: “many women keep quiet – they are scared that their husbands will throw them out – that they will have nowhere to go”.
Such women underline the importance of education in empowering women and tackling discrimination: “If a woman is educated, she can know her rights – she can’t be sold like before.” Many also stress the importance of male and community education on human rights and sexual violence: “All of our husbands and brothers need to be educated about sexual violence and domestic violence – they need to understand that violence against women is not the women’s fault.”
Tackling Violence Against Women and Promoting Womens Rights: Mutually Reinforcing Dynamics
Talking to the women in Mboko then, it becomes clear that many believe tackling sexual violence and promoting women’s rights in the Congoare not just a case of bringing to an end the longstanding conflict which has so negatively impacted on Congolese women for so long. For women to truly take their rightful place in Congolese society, combating instability must go hand in hand with empowering women through education and tackling pervading attitudes which portray women as inferior at both the national and the local level. As Binwa, pictured below, proudly asserts: “Women are also intelligent – they can also contribute to the development of our country”.
Posted By Charlie Walker
Posted Sep 30th, 2011