Annual report 2019-20Read now
Sorcha Fennell reports on a recent visit to Trócaire-funded projects in Bunia in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
We are currently at a really important moment in the development of our programme in DRC, where we are focusing our work in Ituri, in the east of the country.
The ongoing conflicts in DRC have displaced 2.5 million people and estimates say that nearly seven million have died since the fighting broke out in 1998.
One of the most disturbing impacts of the war is the use of rape and sexual violence against women – this has become a norm. While it is hard to get accurate data (due to under-reporting, isolation of communities, and, at times, cultural acceptance of rape) it is estimated that more than a 1000 women a day are raped in the Eastern DRC.
Everywhere we visited this week people told us stories of sexual violence, the huge vulnerability of women and girls and the failure of the State to protect them.
Top: Sorcha Fennell meeting members of the Katoto community literacy group and citizens’ committee. Bottom: Trócaire’s Hervé Bund , Éamonn Meehan and Magloire Nkouannessi in the community of Kilimamwenza meeting people who have been displaced by recent fighting.
In response to this we are supporting a ‘Protection Platform’ which is made up of a number of local organisations who monitor and report cases of sexual violence and who refer women and girls for medical support, provide them with legal support and provide them with counselling and psychosocial support.
During the week we heard of cases of girls as young as five years of age having been raped. The absolute absence of the State and the presence of so many different armed groups have created an environment of impunity where men are not held to account for these atrocious actions.
In the midst of this though, there is hope, as the work we are supporting has led to an increase in reporting, as awareness-raising and education programmes carried out by the organisations we fund have begun to give women the confidence to report, to look for support and in a number of cases, the women together with our partners have demanded and achieved justice.
Work with community leaders and local authorities is also bringing about changes through challenging of traditional and cultural norms which marginalise women.
We spent a morning with a fantastic group of women whose lives have been transformed over the past few years. Women told of having discovered the feeling of being “heard, of being valued and having confidence, since joining the literacy centre and learning to read and write.”
The Diocesan Commission for Justice and Peace (CDJP Bunia) and Forum des Mamans de l’Ituri (FOMI), local organisations we support with funding from the European Commission, work with women to build their confidence, make them aware of their rights under the constitution, and possibly most importantly, teaching them to read and write.
The liberation that literacy gave women who had never had the opportunity to read or write was so visible and powerful.
“Before I knew how to read or write, or before I knew that I am equal to a man, I would never speak at a community meeting, I was full of fear. But now I speak like any man and I know that I have rights as a woman in the DRC,” one woman, participating in the programme, said.
“Now I can write my name, I can read and I can also send a text.”
One of the comments that struck me most was a woman who said: “Now I can write my name, I can read and I can also send a text.” Send a text! Now that is one I would never have thought of. We assume that mobile phones have transformed the lives of rural communities across Africa and they have, but not for the women who can’t read or write. In the absence of any other forms of communication, in isolated rural areas, your phone is the key to the outside world. Calls are expensive, so the primary means of communication is text.
“And how will life be different for your daughters?” I asked them. They told us that their girl children will go to school, regardless of what culture says, they did not have that opportunity but their daughters will. They told us that they also advise them how to protect themselves from men and what their rights are. “We will not let them marry when they are children like we did.”
Importantly this work is carried out together with interventions that aim at working with men on changing cultural norms that harm women and on including women in decisions that affect their lives.
There were Chiefs and local authorities present who were very supportive of the work, who said that they themselves had learnt a lot through the various trainings and awareness-raising sessions carried out by FOMI.
One Chief was brave enough to tell his story. He said that it was his “character to like to take decisions alone”, but then he was approached by the women’s group and asked if he could make a woman his deputy as so many issues he had to resolve in the community affected women. He was reluctant at first but then agreed. And now he said “I consult her on everything, women know how to listen and she gives good advice.”
While the ongoing cases of sexual violence, the poverty and the seemingly never-ending conflict fail to be resolved through political will by the government in the DRC or governments internationally, the people of Eastern DRC are working tirelessly to find their own solutions to make life more bearable, to change their own environment, to create a better future for their own children and we as Trócaire are so fortunate through our work to be a part of it.
As we flew back out of Bunia airport, I felt a sense of sadness for those communities that have been absolutely forgotten by their State and on the other hand I felt a sense of hope as I knew that Trócaire’s increasing presence in Bunia will ultimately make a difference.