The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been called the worst place in the world to be a woman. Sexual violence and rape are considered defining features of the civil war in the eastern part of the country.
This narrative has been reinforced by documentaries like The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, and The Man Who Mends Women. And more recently, news reports have shown that women cannot even trust the people who came to the rescue as mothers have started to speak up about abuse at the hands of foreign aid workers.
These accusations have not been made in isolation. In February, similar revelations were made about Oxfam aid workers in Haiti who paid survivors of an earthquake for sex.
Combined, these revelations have enabled human rights advocates to place gender violence, and the abuse of power by humanitarian workers, on the agenda.
This, in turn, has led to two unintended consequences for women in the DRC.
First, the narrative now being spun portrays them as victims without political agency. And second, there’s been a tendency to cast the entire international humanitarian community as an immoral collective of workers who shouldn’t receive taxpayers’ money by way of foreign aid.
To counter these two narratives, I argue in my article –‘Hybrid Clubs: a feminist approach to peace-building in the Democratic Republic of Congo’ – that although women in the DRC have been victims of tremendous abuse and violence, they are both creative agents, and innovative activists. They have participated in peace negotiations and have managed to secure constitutional change.
I also argue that the work of the entire humanitarian community shouldn’t be put in jeopardy just because abuses have been uncovered. Rather, human right abuses must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
I came to these two conclusions by studying the development of a women’s movement in the DRC from its inception in 2015. What started as a small initiative launched by two international NGOs and their local partners has become a national movement to increase the number of women candidates for the upcoming elections and improve women’s participation in electoral processes.
Not only victims
The movement, aptly titled “Nothing Without the Women”, – Rien sans les Femmes – kicked off in March 2015 as a hybrid initiative of international NGOs and local women’s groups in eastern Congo. It has now become one of the only movements that has managed to bring together female activists from North and South Kivu in the East, and Kinshasa in the West.
“Nothing without the Women” was created with two aims. The first was to advocate for the enactment of the Parity Act. This law was drafted to formalise female participation in all domains of society and public life, but it’s just a declaration of principles, as it doesn’t propose specific measures on how to achieve this aim. The second was to petition for the revision of the DRC’s electoral laws so that women candidates are included on all electoral lists, and that lists that don’t include women cannot be registered.
The movement collected more than 200,000 signatures from across the country in the months before the act was passed in May 2015. The signatures were submitted to the President of the National Assembly. At the same time, marches were organised in Bukavu in Eastern Congo, Uvira in South Kivu, and Goma in North Kivu to popularise the petition. More than 6000 people joined the march in Bukavu. Thanks to this concerted push, the Parity Law was passed in August 2015.
Since then, the movement has grown. It now incorporates more than 160 women’s rights organisations from around the country. It has become one of the most visible counters to the victim narrative, or the idea that women in the DRC can’t exercise their agency to effect change.
One of the movement’s strongest attributes has been the ability of local and international humanitarian organisations to work together. This has allowed them to build networks both nationally and internationally.
Partnerships across borders
One of the key findings from my research in the DRC was that partnerships between local and international actors are common. These partnerships have been formed into what I call “hybrid clubs”.
One of the features of these clubs is that they forge a sense of group identity. This is done by operating on specific codes of conduct, wearing distinguishing clothing, and occupying specific geographical locations.
The clubs are keen to overcome simplistic assessments of international humanitarians – the sense of “us and them”. For example, in a meeting with international funders at the Swedish embassy in Kinshasa in May 2017, local and international members of the movement dressed the same.
But this visual element – uniform dressing – that was used to identify “sameness” between the local women and those from foreign countries on one day, was used to signal “difference” on another. At a meeting with members of the Congolese parliament, only local women were represented. They dressed in “Nothing without the Women” clothing. Their allies from the international NGOs didn’t, and sat at the back of the room without speaking. The tactic was an attempt to prove to parliamentarians that this was not a foreign initiative but a truly Congolese one.
Contrary to current media narratives about the DRC, my research shows that Congolese female activists are resourceful, independent citizens who know how to run effective campaigns. It also shows that local and international humanitarians are varied and multiple.
If meaningful change is to be achieved, they must work together.