This year’s International Women’s Day celebrated the leadership of women in a Covid-19 world. Globally, the pandemic has highlighted not only the vulnerabilities and discrimination that women face but also the pivotal role that they play in helping their communities cope.
In the context of IDS’s new research project on the protection mechanisms put in place by marginalised women in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where human rights abuses are widespread, including extremely high levels of sexual and gender-based violence, we unpack some of the leadership issues faced by women as they mobilise collectively to navigate this difficult terrain.
“Women are becoming aware and standing up for their rights”
Women in the Eastern DRC are too often portrayed in the media and fundraising campaigns as eternal victims of a gnarly conflict over power, land and natural resources. It is in these rather simplistic narratives that we see reductionism at its worse. Yet all the Congolese people we talked to in political, academic, and humanitarian sectors emphasised the strength and resilience of the Congolese woman. Notwithstanding the extremely difficult context in which they live and the many challenges they face, they continue tirelessly to promote their rights and actively contribute to the development of their communities. Especially in the villages, it is women who carry the life of the community on their shoulders. Yet they remain excluded from customary decision-making instances (barzas).
In recent years, however, some progress has been made at the institutional level to enable women’s leadership. For example, the DRC ratified key international instruments (e.g. UN Resolution 1325) and developed a legal framework to protect women (2006). The Family Code (1987) was also updated in 2016, scrapping some of the most discriminatory practices that prohibited women from opening their own bank accounts or requiring their husband’s authorisation to be able to work.
Nevertheless, despite these achievements, implementation of these principles remains a challenge. For instance, constitutional provisions demand at least 30 percent representation of women. In the North Kivu provincial Government there are three women ministers (Agriculture, Education and Gender, Women and Family) and a woman vice-governor. Some women also occupy posts in the various cabinets. However, this number does not reach even 10 percent in decision-making institutions, which has a debilitating impact on the ability of women to set the agenda and push for meaningful reforms. As recently as October 2020, for example, the lack of female representation in the chamber (with only 3 women ministers in situ) meant regional Parliament failed to pass a proposition of law for the protection of pregnant women and the new-born child.
Importantly, however, women’s leadership goes far beyond political representation. During the 2009 conflict, the actions of the Sauti ya mama wa Mukongomani network was testament to the grassroot mobilisation of women amid multiple and recurring crisis. In the territories of Masisi and Rutshuru, women travelled as a delegation to meet with rebel general Laurent Nkunda who threatened to take the provincial capital Goma.
They voiced the concerns of communities in and around Goma about rising levels of violence and listened to the grievances and demands of the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) rebel group, even as no official authorities had done so. Women then conveyed this knowledge to regional and national authorities in Goma and Kinshasa, urging powerholders to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. Notably, the peace conference Kivu Amani Leo was born from this initiative… and none of the women leaders were invited to the negotiation table.
Other examples of women taking to the streets or negotiating directly with armed groups to defend their communities abound. In 2013, women successfully warned Goma residents that the rebel group M23 was moving southward to take the city, even as authorities denied any impending security threat. As the armed group took Goma and shut down all power and water supplies, women went once more to see leaders and successfully negotiated for the lines to be re-established. In Goma, owing to relative stability of recent years, women are increasingly aware of their rights and the need to work together. But in the territories where instability persists, very few women’s initiatives emerge and even fewer stay afloat.
“Despite our efforts, women’s organisations continue to die out”
Covid-19 was a significant step backwards for women’s leadership. As opportunities for livelihoods became scarce, poverty disproportionately affected women and considerably reduced their ability to mobilise.
Immaculée Birhaheka raised the alarm about the number of women with diplomas who are found selling shoes, food and other items in the markets. And as women in formal businesses went back home, those who were taking care of domestic chores and childcare lost their livelihoods. “Women cannot advocate for their rights with an empty belly” she says “how can we expect women, who don’t have the capacity to take care of their own families’ survival needs, to dedicate financial resources to mobilisation?”.
As the overall quality of life decreased, women have fewer resources and thus a lower social status within their community, conditions without which they cannot claim to be a leader or role model for others.
Conflict is often blamed for the difficulties faced by women to mobilise and assert leadership. But even in urban areas and places which are relatively shielded from attacks, women’s organisations struggle to emerge and become strong. All three civil society leaders attributed this to socio-cultural resistances. On the one hand, women are perceived as incompetent individuals who seek and abuse favours from men; but on the other hand, women with diplomas and financial means are considered dangerous and difficult.
Those who went to Nkunda in 2009 to protect their community were accused of conniving with the enemy. And those who form associations on their own are perceived as rebels. Women leaders cannot emerge and take root as long as they are expected to seek men’s approval and authorisation.
“Women’s leadership starts at home and must include men”
The leadership of women is too often rooted in a woman vs. man binary where progress in women’s rights and leadership is thought to be gained at the detriment of men. Nelly Lumbulumbu deplored that if women’s rights remain only a woman’s issue and not a societal issue, the interests of women will continue to be secondary concerns. “We need to think of women’s leadership as a win-win partnership” Bene Kimathe told us, “they must be leaders together”. Awareness is starting to emerge that men must be included in efforts to empower women, not only to support them in their initiatives in the public life but also at home. “If the man is the only leader in the household and falls incapacitated, how will the family do if the woman is not equipped?”. By discriminating against women, he says, men limit themselves “we men have nothing to win from keeping women down”.
What is needed then is a form of social partnership where men accompany women to work together at all levels (schools, church, cooperatives). But to do so men also need to fight social norms and cultural resistances which sanction egalitarian practices.
In the humanitarian community, we tend to wait for specific occasions like International Women’s Day or elections to raise awareness about women’s rights. But our discussions with Congolese civil society leaders remind us it is very much an everyday issue. These conversations should be taking place every single day throughout all aspects of community life. We need to break down simplistic narratives and look at the nuance of women’s lived lives to fully understand and appreciate the shape that their leadership will continue to take in a post Covid-19 world.
This blog is based on a series of interviews conducted by the authors with three leaders in North Kivu civil society: Mrs Immaculée Birhaheka (co-founder of the organisation Promotion et Appui aux Initiatives Féminines (PAIF)); Mrs Nelly Lumbulumbu (Founder of Sauti ya Mama Mukongomani); Mr Bene Kimathe (Coordinator of Positive Masculinity programmes at Groupe des Hommes Voués au Développement Inter-communautaire (Ghovodi)).