DRC: Women holding things together

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

  • mothers1Women form a cohesive unit Sandra Cox/ACT Alliance
  • mothers2sisters are doing it Sandra Cox/ACT Alliance
  • mothers3an onion field Sandra Cox/ACT Alliance
  • mothers4two women Sandra Cox/ACT Alliance

In the uncertainty and struggle of life in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, one group of society is holding things together: the mothers. The women who managed to raise school fees and put food in their children’s stomachs are also keeping an eye out for siblings, parents, friends, as well as neighbours returning home after years displaced by war.

In a small town in Rutshuru territory, North Kivu, a group of 20 mothers has cemented their friendship by creating the Mothers’ Association for Integrated Development (Asmadi), which is supported by a local ACT Alliance member.

The town is only about 50km north of Goma but several hours by four wheel drive. The road north is the main highway to Goma yet recently overturned trucks at the side of the road lie testament to decades of no road maintenance. Soldiers and peacekeepers patrol the road.

In their office, the women sit on wooden benches around tables. Most have their babies on their backs. One elderly woman has no possessions, just her story, a neighbour who helps her and Asmadi.

Busimba Elise who is 44 years old has nine children, including two orphaned children. Her 10th child is on the way. She is also a primary school teacher and the leader of Asmadi, which supports families setting up house and garden again after living displaced for years. Recently 350 families returned from Uganda. And a week earlier another list of returnees was issued. In addition, Asmadi’s other programmes work to ensure support to rape survivors and people living with HIV, and that people have enough good quality food and drinking water.

Busimba Elise’s rationale for Asmadi stems from the highly patriarchal nature of DRC society. “The men make the decisions in the DRC. The women stand alongside them, but can be exploited by them. Few women in this part of Congo are educated or have equality in the home.

“But mothers understand certain things. They can set their own goals. They act in the group’s interest as well as the individual’s.”

Women are said to hold up half of heaven in the DRC. But they also contend with half of hell: in the eastern DRC last year, one woman in South Kivu was reported by UN OCHA as being raped every two hours. The United Nations reports that a total of 9000 women and girls were raped in the east in 2009. In this country, a woman is not expected to live past 50, according to the World Health Organisation. Trauma is common in Kivu communities, especially for survivors of rape and other sexual violence.

The Asmadi women list their immediate problems: that their husbands can’t be present to protect them whenever they go into the fields or the forest, their need to sell enough goods at market to pay school fees, the disadvantages their daughters face when competing with boys for places in school, and sleepless nights worrying about insecurity, banditry and soldiers who threaten to kill them if they don’t hand over money or possessions. As well, they worry about sexual violence, having to rebuild houses, that their children will not be education to a decent level, the problems of feeding their children, and their fear that their sons will join a rebel group or army if the parents can’t provide for them.

The question of their hopes for their children is met, for a moment, by an uncomfortable silence, the only sound being the rain battering the tin roof. Then one woman says she hopes for an end to the war and security so she can collect firewood without risk of being raped. With enough firewood, she can cook nutritious meals for her children every day. Well-fed children do better at school, she says. Another says simply the ability to pay school fees is her greatest hope for her children. Asking anything more is almost extravagant.

Local organisations - hard-working but little heard of

It is not the UN or the international NGOs providing the bulk of assistance to civilians caught in clashes between the army and rebel units in North Kivu. Ordinary people in villages and towns, and local organisations set up and run by Congolese do most of the work. The prospects for Asmadi would be bleak without the support of ACT member Bureau Oecuménique d’Appui au Développement. BOAD most recently provided Asmadi women seeds and other relief goods after a bout of fighting. “We thank them for coming, in spite of the situation,” says Busimba Elise. “And if they can’t provide enough for everyone, the most vulnerable get assistance.”

BOAD helps four organizations in this part of Rutshuru alone. Each is represented by dozens of small committees that grapevine villages and towns throughout Rutshuru. BOAD supports water cleaning facilities, vegetable gardens for widows, orphans and people with disabilities, agriculture training, sewing and literacy classes, and tree planting programmes. Just as importantly, it connects these organizations to local government, giving them visibility at the upper echelons.

Local ACT members can be found in areas few other humanitarian actors work. Or in what remains when other NGOs have gone. Local organizations reach far into the interior – further than media or international NGOs - and have long associations with other groups that form the fabric of society. They chip away at the causes of poverty and bring relief to villages and towns caught up in the cycles of upheaval.

BOADS’ assistance is paying off – as well as distributions of food and goods, this town has seen a clear decrease in illness from filthy water and in malaria following distribution of mosquito nets. On the outskirts of town, Busimba Elise shows visitors an Asmadi project - a field of onions curving gently up a hill. Row upon row of neatly spaced plants that will provide one more source of income for the women, as they continue carrying half of heaven.