Global feminists—from Gloria Steinem to Leymah Gbowee—join in solidarity with Congolese women
On computer screens thousands of miles away from one another, some of the world’s leading feminist figures joined in solidarity with women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the country’s first-ever women’s summit on September 14. For a country that marginalizes women’s voices in the extreme way that DRC does, this was a chance for powerful women activists to be not only heard, but globally supported.
Sixty-five women from all over DRC participated in the summit, which was held in the capital, Kinshasa. They appeared live on a large screen in a room at New York City’s Hunter College. The goal of the day was to strengthen women’s leadership roles in their communities, in peacebuilding, and in politics as the country continues to struggle through sectarian violence and the decades-long aftermath of brutal colonization.
DRC has been mired in war for decades. Although the war officially ended in 2003, violence has continued to displace tens of thousands. The humanitarian situation in the country, according to international relief organization Oxfam America, is “among the worst in the world.”
The country is also (controversially) known as the rape capital of the world. Rape has long been used as a weapon in DRC—in fact, the UN recorded nearly 12,000 cases of sexualized violence in nine months in 2014. The numbers of women and men sexually violated, however, while extraordinarily high, are extremely hard to assess. Studies are all over the map, but basically everyone involved in studying violence in Congo—except perhaps the overly confident Congolese government—agrees the number is astronomical and unacceptable.
Read our story “The actual state of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo” for more on the difficulty of quantifying rape in the country.
“We are disappointed that women still continue to face violence of all types due to armed conflict, and other types of conflict,” Justine Masika Bihamba, president of Synergie des Femmes pour Les Victimes des Violences Sexuelles-SFVS (Women’s Synergy for Victims of Sexual Violence), a Congo-based organization founded in 2002. She calls the violence a “cancer” that persists in areas that have supposedly “been pacified.”
But it’s not only the issue of ongoing violence against women that needs desperate attention in DRC. Women are largely excluded from positions of power and from the ongoing peace process, and usually work on how to make their country a better place with little financial or other support. The summit played a small part in rectifying that.
Speakers focused on the importance of United Nations Resolution 1325, which reaffirms the importance of including women in peacebuilding, peace negotiations, and a post-conflict response. Only 4 percent of those who were signatories to peace around the world between 1992 and 2011 were women, said Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, who spoke at the summit via video. When it came to peace negotiators, only 9 percent were women, she said, citing UN Women data.
Solange Lwashiga, a spokeswoman for the Congolese Women's Forum for Peace, said her group has “targeted the participation of women in decision-making positions throughout the electoral process, appointment process, the peace process in the DRC, and we have noticed the following: 17 years after the adoption of the Resolution 1325, Congolese women—who are more than 50 percent of the entire population—are represented at only 10 percent at decision-making levels and at peace processes.”
Leymah Gbowee, who received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on women and peacebuilding in Liberia and has been working with women in Congo since 2008, said the summit was a chance to reshape the narrative around Congolese women and to shine a positive light on their work. “There is a misrepresentation of the Congolese women in the Western media,” she said. “There’s a lot of emphasis on the negative impact of the crisis, on their lives, rather than on the positive work that they’ve been doing over time.”
As part of the New York City solidarity with the summit, Navi Pillay, the South African former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, recorded a video that was played, as did American actors Lena Dunham and Meryl Streep. “We know that what you suffer is something that is shared by many women around the world,” said Streep. The Academy Award-winning actress told the gathering in Kinshasa that she wishes that “your efforts to bring peace to your country—in the way that only women can—are successful.”
Gloria Steinem, co-founder of the Women’s Media Center, was firm in her belief that coming together in this way at a summit such as this, and under difficult circumstances (it is extremely hard to travel in DRC—there are literally no roads in much of the country, and those that exist are hardly more than a series of potholes), will create change. Steinem said she has “faith that being together, hearing each other’s experiences, having each other’s support is the key to everything.
“I hope that even from this long distance, we can offer our support and our love and our understanding of however difficult we think it is here, it is far more difficult where they are.”
The entire solidarity hour was livestreamed on the Facebook page for Donor Direct Action, an organization that helps fund women’s groups around the world. Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and author of Lean In, also offered her support. In a comment on the livestream, she wrote, “Congolese women—like women everywhere—deserve to live in safety and security. We need to listen to their voices and support their work for a more peaceful future.”
Gwobee said she’s using her voice to tell the rest of the world that rape does not define Congo. “There’s more to it,” she said. “There’s a serious and strong solidarity among the women, regardless of their status as victims.”
Since the summit, peace talks began on Tuesday after a yearlong upsurge in violence in the southwestern Kasai Province—during which time 3,300 people have died, according to the Catholic Church. And Donor Direct Action says the women’s summit has already had an excellent effect in this particular case: “Six of the women from the forum managed to attend,” said Brendan Wynne, spokesman for the group. More than 80 local women came as well. They made a statement publicly asking for women’s participation in this process.
“This is a new development,” said Wynne, “as only the military leaders involved were likely to attend, so the coming together of women from across the nation is proving successful—with lots more success to hopefully come.”
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