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Uninspired Leadership and Undignified Citizenship —Uganda & Congo (DR)

uganda_thumbSeptember 2008

Muadi Mukenge, Global Fund's Regional Director of the Africa region, went on an outreach trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Read her account of the trip, where she shares her chilling insights on the ongoing crises in these two countries.


By Muadi Mukenge,
Regional Director for Sub-Saharan Africa

The title above describes my emotions after a September 2008 visit to Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I wish I could be more upbeat, but when citizenship means barely eating a meal, not having clean toilets, not having access to ustice for violence and rape, not having prospects of making an income for more than five years, not seeing roads built for decades, dying from preventable conditions, and seeing children sexually preyed upon by adults – it’s time to say that citizenship is undignified. With few exceptions, it’s discouraging to see the same face of Africa year after year.

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I return with a sense of intense urgency that those of us in the Diaspora and in the human rights movement have a duty to do even more than we are doing now to improve the living standards in Africa and support the activists on the ground working for justice and social transformation. It is a sense of urgency because there is a huge chasm between the potential of the continent, and the reality. The reality is a struggle for a daily meal, women still carrying humongous piles of wood for miles on their heads, a rate of inflation where the price of commodities doubles in the span of two or three months, children poorly clothed and mostly out of school, a large population eking out an existence from petty trading and the desperate hope of minerals from the soil. The reality is an infrastructure of extreme modesty, an abandoned agricultural sector, and a lack of roads.

There are many moments that make you speechless. Change is painstakingly slow. It’s 2008 – some African nations are planning to celebrate 50 years since ending colonial rule. In order to celebrate we have to hold the continent to task and exercise better leadership and call for passionate and purposeful leadership.
I went to Uganda to attend the 2nd Regional African Feminist Forum, which brought together over 150 activists from over 30 countries to discuss Africa’s socio-economic and political context and their impact on women’s rights. It was an opportunity to reflect on new strategies to organize against formidable forces that degrade women’s personhood and which have reversed some gains of the last 10 years. As a country that is among the top three countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that have received funding from the Global Fund for Women and which is also a key recipient of development aid from the U.S., visiting after a six-year absence allowed some observations as well as visits with select GFW grantees and time for in-depth discussions with our Advisors.

The DRC trip was part of a joint mission headed by Open Society Institute Southern Africa. Global Fund for Women was invited along with the African Women’s Development Fund and 3 women’s rights networks from Zimbabwe, Guinea and Swaziland on a joint mission to DRC Sept. 21-Oct. 2 to learn about challenges facing the women’s rights movement as well as key efforts that have been put in place to date in two regions of the country -- Kinshasa and Kasai Orientale Province – to improve the status of women and girls. The trip included meetings with multiple actors such as NGOs, government officials, women in Parliament, UN agencies, and health and educational institutions. We spent six days in each city. Kasai was selected as the 2nd site due to the presence of prominent mining activities, the history of military occupation during DRC’s war, and the current crisis of sex trafficking that is prevalent around the mines. It is a portion of the country I had not visited before.

I can point to several highlights of both the Uganda and Congo visits. The Feminist Forum took a sobering look at the continent’s state of “uninspired leadership” and
“undignified citizenship.” We discussed external forces, but the internal ones as well, the dynamics of the women’s movement that have limited our progress and our effectiveness. On the external front, why are we seeing the political gains of the 90s shattered by compromised democratic structures across the continent? Why are we seeing legislation that exists on paper only? Why are we seeing a level of poverty and hunger that is unmatched in the world? And why are weapons causing unspeakable levels of mortality as well as intimidation of civilian populations held hostage by armed bandits? How can we advance a feminist movement when the world and our continent do not show evidence of believing in human rights? The discussions were provocative, several GFW Advisors and grantees also attended, and there was more diverse participation with regard to age, language and geography. Convenings such as these are important to feed into GFW’s thinking as we shape our grant-making priorities.

Despite Uganda’s favored status as beneficiary of development aid, the reality shows us that most development is limited to the capital city and the reality for communities outside remains dire. I had many opportunities to visit provinces far from the capital and also to hold conversations with a range of women. Some activists say it is difficult to talk of a cohesive national women’s movement. The most visible “movement” is urban-based, and some say the past decade was more characterized by personal agendas instead of a concern for the masses of women. The most talented in the movement are snatched up by international NGOs and local NGOs struggle to strengthen their human resources. In its current form, the women’s movement has faced decades of opposition to the Domestic Relations Bill, which has attempted to usher in a set of social, economic and political rights for women. This year, the Bill suffered another setback as lawmakers decided to draft two separate bills – one for Christian women and one for Muslim women. This splits the energies of the women’s movement and relegates a portion of the population to discriminatory laws that are upheld in the name of respect of culture and religion. While in Uganda I also visited a long-time grantee which in 2002 received a GFW Partnership grant in celebration of GFW’s 15th Anniversary. These grants were intended to foster regranting locally and movement-building. The group, Ntulume Village Women’s Development Association, is 21 years old, same as GFW, and it was encouraging to see them doing well. Not only is it doing re-granting, it has broad national reach, and combines rights advocacy with economic empowerment and leadership development.

It was a pleasure to be part of the OSISA delegation to DRC given that the level of donor support in Francophone Africa is negligible when compared to Anglophone Africa. The reality in Central Africa is even more dire when compounded by government neglect and armed conflict. OSISA is interested in strengthening its DRC program, and GFW has solid partnerships there, and together with the other members of the delegation, we aimed to strategize on how to collaborate on an initiative to deepen our support to the women’s movement. We started our days at 8 am and often returned 10 or 12 hours later. In both Kinshasa and Kasai we held a joint meeting with 30 women’s rights groups. We met ministers and members of Parliament and we made site visits in order to appreciate community-led responses to rights violations as well as basic human deprivation. Media sought us out for interviews. I gave two interviews. The non-Congolese in our delegation learned a lot and were able to go away with a comparative view of socio-economic challenges facing DRC vis-à-vis their own country.

Some efforts undertaken by women MPs in Congo include drafting a work-plan that prioritizes HIV prevention, Sexual Violence and Gender Parity; increasing awareness among women elected officials of the national budget process and legislative procedures; working with male allies in Parliament as well as in the community; passing legislation on the rights of persons living with AIDS; and promoting women’s participation in local elections, especially by expanding their literacy. The Minister of Gender is very well spoken, and she decried the lack of a budget to implement the National Gender Policy.

As you know there have been numerous demonstrations throughout DRC against the UN Mission and their apparent inaction in the face of mass atrocities committed against Congolese people. There was a large demonstration the day before we arrived in Kasai and also during the time we were there. State and UN police were always visible in the town center. We learned that the rate of sexual violence in Kasai Orientale is the third highest after North and South Kivu. We had the chance to meet with the UN in Kinshasa and it was a sobering visit – one wonders when will we see bold action to protect Congolese people, especially women? It must be highlighted that there is great popular disaffection with the performance of the government as well. The high expectations of the historic 2006 elections have waned and people are struggling to make it day to day.

Impunity continues unabated and the war is on the verge of resuming as arms proliferation grows.

The most compelling person we met at the UN was the Officer in Charge at UNIFEM in Kinshasa, who spoke passionately and knowledgeably about the social and political context and cultural perceptions of women’s abilities and violence against women. “All UN agencies need to work on women’s rights, not just the Gender Unit,” he said. Imagine a country of 66 million where the budget for women’s rights initiatives is about $300,000. It is also telling that most of the UN’s work is on humanitarian support – this puts a bandaid on problems that have serious and complex causes.

In Mbuji-Mayi (the capital of Kasai Orientale), and Kinshasa we met women’s rights NGOs to present the missions of each of our institutions and to give advice on how these networks could best position themselves to secure financial support for human rights activities. The groups address a range of concerns, including civic education, formal education, economic empowerment, ending discriminatory inheritance practices and sexual violence, provision of safe drinking water, and legal assistance. They are small groups run primarily by volunteers. They told us about their challenges, but at the end presented us with a joint proposal. As donors we spoke candidly about the pitfalls of NGO competition, lack of transparency, and the need for integrated approaches that seek systemic social change.

We visited l’Hopital Muya, which is a state-run facility that has specialized services for victims of sexual violence. With a grant from UNFPA, they are able to provide
comprehensive services including exam, antibiotics, emergency contraception, postexposure prophylaxis, counseling, fistula surgery, etc., all for free. Their services are lifesaving, but it’s like a band-aid approach given that impunity for rape is the norm throughout Congo. 10 percent of the hospital’s patients are under 10 years old.

The visit was quite informative and sobering. The older clients forego legal support after medical care, afraid to challenge their perpetrators and lacking support from their families as well as the monetary means to pay legal fees. Save the Children currently takes on only five victims per month for legal support. It is ironic that the hospital refers the most extreme cases to UNFPA and MONUC with the hope to attain justice – not to state agencies.

The Congolese government passed a law punishing sexual violence in June 2006. The law is extremely far-reaching; it’s more progressive than laws that exist in countries such as Kenya and Ghana. It punishes sexual harassment, early marriage, rape, child abuse, rape via military order, marital rape, etc. Under this law, an officer who orders his soldiers to rape is himself prosecuted. Under this law, teachers who prey on female students should be put in jail. Rapists should be in jail. But our visit showed us again that law in Congo means nothing. While it’s talked about on TV and on posters everywhere, it is not enforced.

The prevalence of rape is increasing, not decreasing. Elected officials and the UN say the right words, but enforcement is still not happening. If you have money to give the police and court officials, the case against a rapist will be dropped. Furthermore, families are so poor that they accept an “informal agreement” to receive financial compensation from the perpetrator instead of taking a rape case to court. So the law exists on paper only. One of our OSISA colleagues visited the Mbuji-Mayi prison and those he found there were being charged with not honoring a $20 debt or with abandoning a marriage after a husband had been absent for five years. But rapists are free to walk
around the streets.

I must add that when we first arrived in Mbuji-Mayi we were received by the Executive Committee of the Provincial Assembly. They shared with us that that week they were introducing in the provincial Parliament legislation to criminalize pornographic film houses and sexual abuse of minors at the mines. Both are very important issues and both have become rampant in Kasai. But can we not extend punishment to rape of anyone of any age? The challenge remains for Congo to respect personal dignity.

I continue with what we witnessed at the mines on the outskirts of Mbuji-Mayi on another day. It took us almost 2 hours to reach the mining sites. After winding along red, dirt roads (not really roads, just where space for cars had been artificially created), past farms, and still driving further along until there was nothing along the side except lots of grass – after all of that, after passing facilities owned by the government’s failing mining company, after passing huge caverns that were former industrial mining sites that are now abandoned, after passing lines of people making the long trek to where they would try their luck to dig for diamonds by hand, we finally stopped in an open field. We were tired, but this was not the end of our journey.

Now we walked, for another 45 minutes, under punishing heat, to reach the area where artisanal mining takes place. So imagine rows of very small wooden structures that double as diamond selling counters and people’s homes and fast-food eateries, very densely packed together -- we pass that, to now start walking through the swamps, hilly areas, bushy areas, rocky areas, more swamps. We see smaller caverns (V-shape), earth piled on the sides and water at the bottom. People are digging by hand through the silt water and working to find some speckle of hope in a diamond that is the exception rather than the norm. It’s sad. Women do most of the digging then the sifting is left to the men to find the nuggets to sell. We talked to people there. The girls selling food there make about 20 cents a day.

Here at the mines sexual exploitation and trafficking of minors is rampant. There are terms to refer to girls ages 6-8 and then those 9-15. Someone can make an order as easily as we order from McDonald’s here. So why is there money to pay for sex with minors and there’s no money to pay school fees, mechanize agriculture or create industries that can employ people? And can we hope that the new law on child abuse will actually reverse what we see today? The Provincial Assembly must not just pass a law, they must enforce it and people must be able to see that enforcement.

We also visited a refugee community where both OSISA and Congolese in the Diaspora are working. The area, just like most of Mbuji-Mayi, is undeveloped. OSISA has built a school and extended a community clinic with a patient ward. The Diaspora group has built a clinic on the far southern side of the community. Then we drive further to visit the nuns that are taking care of refugee orphans. We see the dormitory where the orphans sleep. It’s small and crowded -- we must keep in mind that the nuns have received no grants, no government support. They have a field where they grow vegetables that are sold for profit. This profit was used to build a very modest school that when you look at it you can’t even call it a school. It’s made with mud by hand, with a dirt floor, the ceiling not taller than 5 feet and the room holds about 8 rows of old benches. Again, this was a moment that made us all speechless. Maybe in January the orphans can study in the new OSISA school. The clinic built by the diaspora group is nice and perhaps the size of your small town health center. Construction debris needs to be cleared away but it is ready for electricity via a generator or via solar panels. With the two clinics functioning people still have to walk 45 min to an hour to reach health care. This is life-saving, because now people are dying from the slightest ailments. The government is not doing anything about it.

The context for human rights work in Congo is daunting. Weak state structures, lack of a road and communication infrastructure, lack of public services, discriminatory cultural norms, and lack of employment opportunities – all these realities weigh to make social change an uphill task. Despite its mineral wealth, Congo is way behind the rest of the continent. The state university in Kasai Province is housed in a former elementary school.

Key impressions of the DRC trip include:

  1. the lack of political will to make timely and radical changes to promote good governance or to advance women’s rights;
  2. a disconnect between UN agencies with a mandate to address sexual violence and the work of the broader women’s movement;
  3. lack of coordination between women’s NGOs;
  4. a judiciary that is weak and unfriendly to women’s rights;
  5. and acute poverty that reduces life to day-to-day existence in the face of tremendous mineral resources that benefit foreign interests and a minute circle of Congolese. It is also apparent that the general population is dismayed with the UN’s inaction to protect civilians from aggressions of rebel groups in the eastern part of the country.

When I think of the women and girls who told us their horrifying tales of sexual torture, I keep thinking of the modern weapons that make this torture possible, and the origins of these weapons. They are not made in Congo.

As much deprivation as I saw, there is a lot of potential in DRC and Uganda. The people want change. That’s a big plus. And there are many activists that are seeking partnerships to advance women’s human rights. There’s an opportunity for us to build on the work of local activist organizations and work towards a world of Inspired Leadership and Dignified Citizenship.