Women's lives the front line of conflict


I would like to tell you a story of Marcelina, a teenager from North Kivu, a province in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). During my visit to Congo in May last year, Marcelina told me that she was abducted from her house and forced into prostitution. For more than a month, Marcelina was forced to service, cook and care for these men after they killed members of her family. She was a slave, with no control over her body or life.

She eventually escaped, pregnant, with no family and no support. Her perpetrators were never charged with kidnapping or sexual assault – they remain free to commit the same atrocities again. But Marcelina was one of the lucky ones. For thousands of other women and teenagers, the nightmare never ends.

This is just one of many stories that I hear from women of all ages each time I visit the Congo.  

'It is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern conflict', says Major General Patrick Cammaert, a former UN Peacekeeping Operation commander in DRC.

Let’s reflect on that for a moment. It has become more dangerous to be a woman collecting firewood or water than to be on the front lines as a fighter.

In 2008, Caritas Australia published a report to draw public attention to the ongoing conflict in the DRC and the prolific incidence of rape and violence against women within communities there.

The report, Forsaken Voices, was the basis of a campaign to build community, Australian government and international support for peace building programs, justice initiatives and sustainable development projects in the DRC.

The DRC has been the scene of ongoing plunder, warfare, despotism and misery for much of its recent history. The greatest losers in such a disaster are, of course, women.

In 1989, with my babies in my arms, I had to flee DRC as a refugee because people could not tolerate a woman like me speaking out for what is right. Today, thanks to the generosity I found in Australia, to the many who have assisted us, and also to a fair amount of hard work from us all – my family has a wonderful life in Australia.

However, for people still living in Congo, hunger is unrelenting, justice is elusive, and peace is fleeting.

In June this year, Caritas Australia conducted interviews and training with hundreds of people affected by the protracted crisis in North Kivu. These include extended interviews with more than 15 woman and girl survivors of rape, and discussions with local community leaders, health workers and police. In conversations with survivors as young as 11 years old, and the courageous women who are still advocating for justice after almost 20 years of fighting, we learnt that women and girls are the strongest agents of change in the DRC.

In November this year, Caritas Australia will launch its follow-up report on peace and conflict in the DRC, Fearless Voices, and invite all Australians to help our Congolese sisters and brothers realise their hope for peace.

Marceline's story, thankfully, has become one such story of hope.

Her baby is well and just over a year old now. Marceline is making money by selling clothes she has learnt to make through a Caritas training course. Her life is still terribly difficult, but her counselling continues.  

We know from decades of experience that development cannot be implemented from outside. Like peace, it must come from the ground up. It must be built and nurtured one person at a time. Marcelina has found some peace and a place in the world. Her life is getting back on track and she can provide for her young son. The power and agency that was so cruelly taken away from her has been returned. But many more women are still in need of support.

Lulu MitshabuLulu Mitshabu is Caritas Australia's Program Coordinator for Africa. 

Pictured: Lulu Mitshabu visits a rape survivor at an IDP camp outside Goma.

Topic tags: gender issues



submit a comment

Existing comments

Congo has some of the world's largest deposits of Coltan and Tantalum. Each day in our mobile phones, PCs and other electronic goods a bit of Congo's coltan and tantalum makes our modern communications happen. It amazes me that the conflict within the DRC has resulted in excess of 6 million death over the last decade and yet we hear very little of the reality. We all need to not just take from the DRC but listen and act to bring peace to the DRC and this African region. Thanks Lulu for bringing the hope of Congolese women to our attention.
Jack | 18 September 2014

Thank you Lulu. Your story of Marcelina is, sadly, one of hundreds of thousands - whenever men, past and present, used land-grabbing, and greed for resources as excuses for using and abusing women. As a retired teacher of young refugee women, many who had been raped and tortured, it became clear to me that such attacks were a form of genocide -deliberately aimed at the destruction of family and social values. Women with their child-rearing and home building create the cultural stability passed on from one generation to the next. When you take away a woman's power through abuse, little or no education, social injustice or neglect, and silence, we are destroying the future. It is important to hear your voice, loud and clear, and to learn of the wonderful work you do. We need more women like you to stand up and shout about this. And more men to use their positions of power to help do something about it!? A real-life video rather than field notes might shock more people into facing the truth of the matter. Women's magazines, schools and community groups could unite to make a huge hue and cry. Caritas needs the kind of PR campaigns that Amnesty and Medicine Sans Frontieres have.
Annabel | 27 September 2014


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up