The SPR Network denounces and acts against violence in eastern DRC. We travel from south to north of the Kivu area in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to learn about the SPR Network of Associations work against the intrinsic violence suffered by women in the area. SPR Network will receive the Black World Fraternity Award 2022 in February.
Congolese women have since long discovered the power of listening and organising collectively to fight injustice. But the implementation of the Femme au Phone Project (FAF) between 2013 and 2015 has allowed them to accelerate change. This initiative involved European organisations (Fundación Medio, Cordaid, WorldCom Foundation, Sundjata Foundation and Lola Mora Productions), and Congolese organisations (Association des Femmes des Médias du Sud Kivu -AFEM-SK, Synergie des Femmes pour la Paix et la Réconciliation -SPR- and Radio Maendeleo).
A mobile phone without internet access - to call and send SMS messages -, an information storage software and a weekly slot on community radios was the recipe for the project with which the FAF succeeded in getting women who suffered or witnessed violence to share the experience. By the end of the project, the associations that had received FAF training had created or improved awareness of their rights. But they had also defined the types of violence they experienced in their daily environments. Awareness and knowledge are, since then, their best weapons. Living on a border is not the same as living on a mine or in an isolated tea field.
From Bukavu to Goma, the capitals of South and North Kivu, both cities bordering Rwanda, is less than 200 kilometres, but the state of the roads makes it a journey of more than seven hours. It is difficult to assimilate that in a landscape as beautiful and rich as this one, violence against women and girls is so extreme. The difficulties and the solutions that women and girls implement are shared with the rawest sincerity, without shame or fear of what people will say. The women Mundo Negro spoke to are convinced that silence makes their pain invisible.
In DRC, 35.6% of women aged 15-49 reported having suffered physical and/or sexual violence by their partner in the 12 months prior to a 2018 UN Women survey. In the east of the country, the figure rises to 75% according to Médecins Sans Frontières. In addition, almost 70% of Congolese women over the age of 15 live below the international poverty line.
Mugogo: rural incidence
It was a rainy day. After walking along the main avenue of Bukavu, we pick up the SPR Network team, who have prepared the meeting with the women of Mugogo, 25 kilometres west of Bukavu.
It is Sunday, a day of rest, family and church. The hustle and bustle of vans, motorbikes and people is somewhat more relaxed than on working days. As prayer ends at the Protestant church where Faraja Zawadi, spokesperson for Mugogo's community advocacy group attends, we pass through tea fields full of children. "It took us three months to do it, but thanks to SPR's accompaniment, our advocacy group managed to build public latrines in the central market, which attracts more than 3,000 people every Wednesday and Saturday," says Zawadi.
The training the women received allows them to protect themselves. "We maintain the FAF mechanism, but before a woman reports any violence, we inform each other. We don't make it public or go to the police until we have discussed it and exhausted community communication channels. When the aggression is known, the woman is exposed and it is dangerous. Alongside her, Naweza Almerance, a political officer in a nearby town, believes that "there are not enough women in political office to make people aware of the multiple violations they go through on a daily basis. Public participation is essential. Almerance acknowledges that they are finding solutions to community problems - such as building roads to enable them to reach the hospital - together with the men. They have broken their silence and now have a say in how to achieve security and development in their environment.
Elody Buhendwa highlights the constraints brought on by their economic precariousness, and highlights the work of the Association of Money and Credit Villages, which involves more than 11,000 people. They have a solidarity fund that allows them to start small businesses or cover family expenses. "The SPR training has brought us out of ignorance; the work that men do can also be done by women," adds Furaha Muderhwa.
Some Mugogo women emphasise that literacy was the beginning of change. "Now women can read the notices, they decide for themselves, they go to meetings, they protest, they defend their property, they demand their inheritance. Before, we used to send our children to school, but the SPR showed us that change was within us," argues Brigitte Miburhunduli. Among the younger women, such as Gentille Biribinta Cubaka, they emphasise the benefits of family planning, thinking about the child to be born, what he or she will need, and that "there is a dialogue with the husband, because it is a common responsibility."
However, Jeanine Liala argues that capacity building is still insufficient, that the whole area is not reached and that they lack a place to meet. The spokesperson, Faraja Zawadi, writes an equation on the classroom blackboard the Catholic parish has provided for this meeting. On the blackboard, she calculates the risk level of the communities: Risks = (hazards × vulnerability) / capacities.
Joyeuse Bihemu and Furaha Fataki are 15 and 16 years old respectively. The former is the mother of an 11-month-old son, and the latter of a seven-month-old son. "I was working in the field in Bulanga. A man came and raped me. When I found out I was pregnant, I thought I was too young to have him. Now, my responsibility is to get married so I can take care of him," Joyeuse says. In Furaha's case, it all happened at the market, when a man known to the family invited her into a house and raped her. "I didn't tell my parents because I was ashamed, but my mother took me to a health centre to find out what was wrong. The doctor told her. The police investigated, but they didn't find him." Furaha feels that her life "is in danger" and that she must find the means to care for her son.
Despite their youth, they both point out with determination that it is up to the authorities and the judiciary power to protect women and girls. "They need to increase security at night, when we come home from work, and arrest the rapists," says the former. Worried that the rapist had passed on a disease to her, she discovered almost by chance that she was pregnant.
Between 20 and 30 November 2012, according to a report by the UN Mission for the Stabilisation of the DRC, "135 cases of rape and serious human rights violations, including mass killings and looting by the military" were recorded. Thirty-nine members of the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) were tried for the cases in Minova.
The military had withdrawn to Minova in the face of the advance on Goma by the rebels of the March 23 Movement. 190 women denounced having been raped and testified before a military court. The trial, which was closely watched by Congolese society, showed the need for the cases to be reported and tried, although in this case, practically all the accused were acquitted. Of the 39 military personnel involved, only one lieutenant colonel, convicted of rape, and one non-commissioned officer, accused of rape and murder, are serving life sentences; one corporal got 10 years in prison. Another 22 NCOs were acquitted of rape charges, but sentenced to between 10 and 20 years in prison for " instructions violation, looting and ammunition dissipation."
Up the hill from the centre of Minova stands the antenna of Radio Bubandano, a community radio station that during the FAF project broadcast weekly programmes on the violence situations reported by women via SMS. Its director, Ezéchiel Batumike, explains that this served to establish a channel of communication with listeners, who have continued to share the violence and difficulties they face on a daily basis. Radio Bubandano broadcasts in Swahili, French and the local language. "We are powerful civilians because we have a microphone. We are a community radio station that gives real information, we talk to all sides. I have received death threats, but I have never stopped applying our code of ethics," explains Batumike, who points to violence as the main factor in the region's underdevelopment.
FAF did a report on what happened in Minova in 2012. A decade later, Justine Shamahemba, a journalist with Radio Bubandano, says that "the situation has not improved much because rapes are not reported. The solution is to raise awareness among the population. The programmes we used to make based on SMSs were working.”
Kamanyola: the border
45 kilometres south of Bukavu, the women's relationship with insecurity is concentrated on the border. "We feel strong because we have been trained, we detect mistreatment, we feel accompanied, when we hear of a case of rape we go to the hospital and to the police. We are alert," begins Angelique Furaha, for whom "the custom of a woman helping another woman is the key." "They call us ‘the impossible women’ because we persist and we are determined to change things," says Jeanette Chandazi Nabintu.
"We are cross-border women with specific security needs. We crossed the border in fear, but now we can register our passage at a window," says Elisabeth Bitisho. Alongside her, Jeannette Musole, 23, who has three children from three rapes, explains that "armed groups like the M23 have brought violence. There used to be good relations with neighbouring countries, but now even to start a small business they demand that we have sex with them.”
A traditional miner needs at least two hours of work to obtain one kilo of cassiterite, for which he will be paid three dollars at the mine; six if he takes it to the Nyabibwe Business Centre; or 13 if he sells it in Bukavu. Seventy-five percent of the population in this mining area lives from the activities generated by the deposits, a chain in which women figure prominently.
Marie, Solange, Danielle, Nathalie and Françoise point out the serious deficiencies in psychosocial assistance that women suffer in this locality, located 100 kilometres north of Bukavu. "Domestic and economic violence cause women to suffer hardships that are not remedied by the local authorities. In the mine, conditions are very hard, access is difficult because there are fees to pay, and the violence imposed by the armed groups who want to exploit them is a constant threat," says Marie, who talks about the work she is trying to do on the basis of the training she received from the SPR.
The men stay for weeks, sometimes months, in the mines, where the women take care of all their needs. "In order for women to work in cassiterite mining, they are required to have sex with those in charge. And they often have to support their children," adds Solange. Some of these women, as Danielle points out, in addition to looking after the miners, work in the extraction of the mineral. "In the mines, they have three options: work in the extraction, run a small business or wander around to sell their bodies. To break this dynamic, more mediation and awareness-raising is needed," concludes Françoise.
Kavumu: community advocacy
Several collectives in Bugorhe, a village in the Kavumu area, are achieving some success in community advocacy initiatives. In 2018, for example, they registered a hundred civil marriages in a single ceremony. The aim? These women would be more protected.
Two of the self-styled "FAF men" and the group of women we met list the threats from armed groups and the violence that the alert groups continue to record. The fear of denouncing because the risk one loses one's job, the difficulties of access to FAF training or the impossibility of following up initiatives from the SPR network due to the state of the roads are still commonplace. And then there is the "lack of financial means" to do the work. Here they detect domestic, physical, psychological and economic violence; early pregnancies and forced marriages. Some of them point out that, in addition to mediation and listening, legal accompaniment is needed.
Goma: multiple violence
Marie Claire, Pacific and Maurice welcome us to the capital of North Kivu, Goma. They are organising a meeting with women's associations working for peace and progress, fighting against vulnerability and discrimination.
The many conflicts in the city relegate violence against women to the background. "We focus on education, the abuses in the teacher-student relationship and the lack of cohabitation between communities," begins Pacific. "We have discussed the 2006 law on violence, we have explained it in the churches so that the change it brings about is understood," continues Jeannette, from the association Orientation for Women and Vulnerable Households. "Peace, reconciliation and social cohesion are the key to what we have learned in the SPR, something we have applied in difficult times, such as the eruption of the volcano in 2021.”
On the way back to Bukavu, we stop at the peace camp organised every year by the SPR, which brings together young people from the countries around the Great Lakes. It is a space for debate, sharing the violence experienced by their communities and seeking solutions based on coexistence.
The average age of the women we met was around 40 years old; they act out of the need to exercise their rights. In Kavumu we observed that SPR also pays attention to theory, remembering that there are laws and international treaties that protect them and that putting them into practice depends on both individual and collective action.
Photo. Joyeuse Bihemu and Furaha Fataki with their children in Minova. © Carla Fibla García-Sala