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Carol Ballantine, Policy Officer, reports from a recent symposium on women’s participation in advocacy and political life in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
One prominent female politician, an outspoken advocate for women’s rights in the developing world, asked Annie with concern: “how are things for women right now?”&
Inevitably, she was expecting to hear grotesque responses about rape and violence – definitely the defining issue for Congolese women, especially in the East of the country. But Annie surprised us all. She spoke about a change that’s happening in the DRC right now: the advocacy work that she and other local organisations are carrying out – many with the support of Trócaire – to demand the equal participation of women in the Congolese parliament.
The truth is, the exploitation and abuse of women will only end when women demand power in decision-making. That’s what we’re witnessing now.
Annie was in Ireland to speak at an International Symposium on Women’s Leadership, Peace and Sustainable Livelihoods in the DRC at NUI Galway.
With Mary Robinson observing and participating, we discussed things that we all knew (without women, there is no prospect of a sustainable peace), and things that surprised and challenged us.
How UN ‘coordination’ has squeezed out space for locally-owned, locally-managed responses to sexual violence in Eastern DRC.
How international organisations established projects for ‘raped women’ which immediately stigmatised the very people they were intended to serve.
Sometimes academic conferences can feel like a luxury, a go-nowhere exercise, useful for producing more research, but not for changing the world. This one was different.
In addition to researchers and analysts, there were policy makers: ones of global and regional stature (Mary Robinson, Bineta Diop and Melanne Verveer), and Irish ones too (then Tánaiste Eamonn Gilmore opened the conference, which was attended by officials from DFAT). Members of the Congolese diaspora living in Ireland came with African-Irish group Akidwa; while NGOs came to see what we could learn and where we could connect.
Bringing people together from different backgrounds and perspectives: this is the essence of peace-building. Thanks to that Round Table, we generated a number of issues that Ireland can concretely take forward. Issues like the need to reconcile Ireland’s economic growth strategy with its obligation to respect human rights in fragile states like the DRC. Or the value of focusing Ireland’s support on specific locations rather than keeping it completely broad based.
The ways that we can foster and support local civil society – rather than crushing it.
The truth is, Annie Matundu Mbambi and the other activists who attended the Symposium know what needs to happen, and they’re working hard to make it happen. We need to listen to them – and to work just as hard as they do.