Lana Khattab is a Programme Officer in our gender and peacebuilding team. In June she spent a week in Goma, North Kivu, where she assisted Alert’s ‘Tushiriki wote’ project and visited a number of activities.
The Great Lakes region, which comprises of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda, experienced violent conflict for over 20 years. Twelve years after the end of a conflict that claimed millions of lives in DRC, violence continues to destabilise the eastern part of the country, presenting an added challenge for building and fostering peace. A critical and all-pervasive obstacle to achieving this in the region is women’s economic vulnerability as well as their exclusion from decision-making in DRC at all levels, whether within the household or community, or at a regional and national scale.
International Alert’s four-year long project 'Tushiriki wote' (meaning 'let's all participate') based in DRC works to counter precisely this obstacle. It empowers women as economic, political and social actors and engages with men to promote positive masculinities. Encouraging women’s political involvement and economic empowerment can only be possible by focussing more broadly on attitudinal change and by working together with women and men to further gender equality. This will lead to more representative institutions, a more inclusive Congolese state and a more peaceful coexistence in DRC and the Great Lakes region of Africa.
Political participation and decision-making
In addition to other activities, such as working with leaders at various levels to increase their awareness of gender issues and improving women cross-border traders’ skills so they can play a more active role in community decision-making, youth dialogue groups are held at a number of universities. These encourage women’s political participation and leadership. At one youth dialogue session I visited at the Université Libre des Pays des Grands Lacs in Goma (pictured left), the lack of female leadership at the university-level was discussed, such as in the form of female faculty and student representatives.
Possible causes for this were raised and debated by male and female students. The lack of self-confidence by women was noted as a challenge, together with a lack of confidence in women by men. In fact, gender norms that perpetuate inequalities were mentioned as a key obstacle to equal participation in university political life. The current head of the students’ union representing all students at the university was invited to speak to attendees about the challenges she has faced and to share some tips on overcoming structural barriers to leadership positions. She recalled being shocked at facing resistance by fellow female students, and called upon women to support each other. The importance of having financial means to campaign and gain votes came up as another big challenge for female political candidates at the university, an issue that can be generalised to the broader regional and national sphere.
Women’s economic empowerment
The project also seeks to improve women’s economic conditions by facilitating their access to economic opportunities. Women cross-border traders are empowered through learning how to access and manage credit, strengthening their ability to seek control over economic benefits. Having met with some of the women cross-border traders in Goma (pictured right), the importance of these empowerment activities was very apparent. As one trader stated, “Before, I didn’t know how to administer my work. But now I have learned the tools to be more efficient, and it’s going better.”
Another trader stressed the peacebuilding angle: “We [Congolese and Rwandan cross-border traders] used to be quite suspicious of each other, but as a result of Alert’s activities we now protect each other at the other sides of the border.” Moreover, Alert’s involvement of their husbands in the project was viewed in a very positive manner: “Previously, we used to not tell our husbands about our trainings with Alert and many grew suspicious. Now, we can be more transparent with each other.” Another Congolese woman cross-border trader added: “It’s vital to engage with men. Their attitudes and behaviour present the biggest obstacles to us.” Asked about ongoing challenges they are facing, the women traders all spoke about the irregularity of informal border taxes, a lack of subsidy support by the Congolese government compared to the Rwandan government, and the difficulties of increasing their trade capital.
Changing attitudes towards gender equality
In DRC, the persistence of socio-cultural beliefs and attitudes perpetuate gender inequality. These traditional gender norms place the man in a position of authority in the household, giving him control over decisions and assets, while women face structural challenges as a result of their gender and are responsible for domestic and care duties. More than 20 dialogue groups in selected communities in North and South Kivu meet on a monthly basis to discuss the gender issues they are facing. At a dialogue group meeting on the outskirts of Goma (pictured left), participants discussed the gender dimensions and challenges linked to economic activities.
Women complained about being breadwinners for their families only to see their often unemployed husbands spending a lot of that money on themselves. One female participant noted that these gender inequalities were affecting family dynamics as a whole: “My children dislike their father, because he never gets them presents. It upsets him and he tries to pit them against me.” In group work, men and women were asked to brainstorm together to come up with recommendations on how to alleviate these conflicts. Suggestions included being honest and faithful as well as transparent with the family, and avoiding caisses noires or secret accounts among spouses.
In separate dialogue sessions attended by husbands and some sons of women cross-border traders (pictured right), attitudinal and behavioural change towards a more positive masculinity was sought after. At a discussion group in Goma, men debated the definition of ‘violence’ and ‘gender’. One male participant stated: “In our customs, we always favour boys and men. If I had a bike, I would be inclined to give it to my son, not my daughter.” Others disagree: “It would make sense to give the bike to the eldest child, or leave it for the usage of the whole family.” Over the course of the dialogue sessions, men will further question taken-for-granted attitudes, become aware of the existing gender inequalities and hopefully take active steps to counter them, while encouraging other men in their communities to follow suit.
International Alert is supporting, together with other international NGOs, an alliance of more than 50 local organisations running an advocacy campaign entitled Rien Sans les Femmes (or ‘nothing without women’). You can find out more about the campaign here.
And to find out more about our work on gender and peacebuilding, visit our webpage here.