Change is afoot in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where women are finding new power in working together to confront the challenges of life in an unstable region.
Where does the strength to survive a crisis come from? Is it innate and individual, drawn from a reserve within each of us? Or is it communal and teachable—something that, through our words and actions, we can nurture in each other?
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), decades of bad governance and disputes over resources have cost millions of lives. Poverty and hunger are widespread. More than two million of the country’s estimated 77 million citizens are displaced and living in temporary camps. The average life expectancy is just over 56 years old.
But some women in DRC have found a way to protect and strengthen one another, even in the midst of extreme hardships.
With support from Oxfam partner organizations like Solidarité pour la Promotion Sociale et la Paix (SOPROP), women and men in North and South Kivu provinces are creating protection forums—community groups that stand up for women’s safety. Members vote on the issues they deem most urgent, from inheritance rights
to sexual violence and forced marriage. In the words of protection officer Odette Blitsitsi, “They are a voice for those who don’t have a voice.”
Fleeing home to stay safe
Louise Nyiranolozi is a member of the women’s protection forum in Buporo, a camp for displaced people in North Kivu province. She is also the president of an Oxfam-trained committee that oversees hygiene and sanitation in the camp. “Early in the morning I do hygiene promotion, and every Friday I meet with the women’s group to plan,” says Nyiranolozi, 42.
About 3,800 people live in Buporo camp. Most are from the nearby town of Katoyi and came here seeking safety after violent conflict broke out in 2012.
“The camp is secure. We have never heard of anyone being killed [here],” said Nyiranolozi, though she said women risk being attacked when they leave the camp to collect firewood.
Nyiranolozi is raising five children of her own—three daughters and two sons—as well as a young girl, about 4 years old, who was abandoned on the road on the outside the camp. “I bought soap, washed her and carried her on my back. I thought her mom would come and get her, but it’s now [been] two years and no one has come for her.”
In 2002, a volcanic eruption forced Nyiranolozi’s family to leave their village in Goma. Before they came to Buporo, they had to relocate five different times to avoid being caught up in armed conflicts. “I can’t describe how hard life is when moving from place to place,” she said of those years.
Tragedy in the mountains
At one point, Nyiranolozi’s family fled into the wilderness to avoid armed groups on the roads. They stayed in the mountains for about three years.
“We were just hiding ourselves,” she recalled. “You can’t even build a simple house like this because the rebels would see it. If you cook, you have to cook late in the night. You have to make sure your children don’t cry because if the rebels hear any voice, they will find you and kill you.”
While her family was in hiding, Nyiranolozi’s husband and three of her children died of a sudden illness.
"There were no services to help us—there was nothing there at all,” she said. “My firstborn died on Monday, the second on Tuesday, the third on Thursday, and my husband on Sunday. They got sick and we didn’t know what it was. We just saw a rash on their body and then they died. …
“Even though life may be hard [in the camp], I thank God that I have not yet lost any of my family members here. If I can talk about getting better, it’s seeing my family around me. But losing four family members in a week was the worst.”
“It’s possible to survive”
As part of her work with the protection forum, Nyiranolozi now counsels women who have faced similar losses.
“Working for others is my talent and my nature,” she explained. “I have learned a lot with the women’s forum, and the women trust me and listen to me. Whenever you have a problem you can come and talk to me and you can be sure your story will not be spread around the camp, which helps them trust me more.”
Among the women she has helped is Sylvie Mapendo, a 25-year-old mother of four whose husband died while they were living in Buporo. “She is young and has been through the same things as me,” said Nyiranolozi. “I tell her, ‘yes, it’s hard, but it’s possible to survive’.”
Like Nyiranolozi, Mapendo is a member of the women’s protection forum. “I learned lot [from the group],” said Mapendo. “They taught us how to live in a peaceful way with our neighbors.”
Despite the hardships she and other women have experienced, Nyiranolozi said she believes in forgiveness.
“What would be the purpose of keeping hatred within me? I have to live in peace with everyone because when I don’t have something, they help me. I believe you do something good today and … tomorrow it will come back to you.”
Speaking up for women
These efforts could help DRC build a more peaceful future. In November 2013, the Congolese army and UN forces defeated the armed group M23. Afterward, there seemed to be a shift away from the cycles of violence. New initiatives, greater political engagement, and increased security promised to help people move toward resolving years of conflict.
Even so, a recent Oxfam report found that civilians—especially women and girls—remain at high risk of violence from armed groups and even government officials. Women still face discrimination, and are underrepresented in the legal system and government; 15 out of 16 villages surveyed had no women among their leaders.
The protection forums give women a means to address problems head on and to negotiate collectively with local authorities.
“When people meet, brainstorm, and collaborate to solve problems they have immense power,” said Adél Sasvári, manager of Oxfam’s protection program in South Kivu. “Our approach is to support the local population to better manage their [lives] and cope with uncertainty. We work with them to make the most of the services that are available. We link them with psychological and health care and train them to stand up for their rights. Oxfam simply backs up their efforts because it’s not us who will bring the change—it’s them.”
Those efforts may bring change for the next generation, too, like Nyiranolozi’s daughter Sarah, 16.
“My mom can do anything,” said Sarah. “I like that courage.”
With reporting from the Democratic Republic of Congo by Anna Ridout. Read more stories of women in DRC finding new power in working together in our Spring 2015 OXFAMCloseup magazine.