In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, women have long fought for inclusion in peace-building efforts and improved social, economic and political participation. Following years of government inaction and inadequate attempts to advance women’s rights and representation, in 2019 WILPF DRC took steps toward positive change by speaking truth to power.
Women living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) face constant threats to their health and well-being and an uphill battle when it comes to achieving equality and inclusion.
High rates of armed violence, sexual violence, child marriage, maternal mortality and human trafficking, as well as the disproportionate impact of HIV prevalence, food insecurity and poverty, are just a few of the factors contributing to profoundly challenging circumstances for women in the country.
Despite the hardships they face, women are dramatically underrepresented in peace-building processes and political institutions in the DRC, comprising just seven per cent of positions at the highest levels of government – a reality that continues to severely compromise women’s progress toward a brighter future.
But in 2019, a new chapter opened up in the fight for justice and equality for Congolese women through the work of WILPF DRC, which has been actively advocating for women’s advancement and social, economic and political participation since 2007.
Playing a critical consultative role in the development of the country’s second National Action Plan (NAP) to drive progress for women and ensure their representation in peace efforts, in 2019 WILPF DRC helped usher in fresh momentum to commitments for women’s inclusion in the nation.
Looking back: A long journey toward progress
In 2010, the DRC developed its first National Action Plan to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) – a landmark resolution that recognises the critical role of women in advancing peace efforts and the importance of their equal participation and representation in all activities related to peace and security.
The plan was years overdue. It came a full decade after the adoption of UNSCR 1325 and seven years after the end of the DRC’s civil war, during which countless women suffered the immediate and long-term impacts of mass rape – which was frequently used as a weapon of war.
And despite the progress that had seemingly been made with the launch of the NAP, little action was taken to implement it. Stalled by a lack of political will and funding, and further held back by the impacts of ongoing insecurity in post-conflict DRC, women’s levels of participation in peace dialogues continued to be low.
Advocating for justice
The first NAP also suffered from several critical oversights.
One key example was its failure to address the flow of small arms and light weapons as a major contributor to the country’s continued insecurity, despite their proliferation being linked to increased violence against women.
Recognising the urgent need for the next NAP to include action on the flow of arms into and within the country, in 2018 – when discussions got underway for the development of a second generation NAP, which is now on track for implementation by 2022 – WILPF DRC’s President, Annie Matundu-Mbambi, brought a gender analysis of arms to the table and succeeded in securing disarmament as one of the key objectives of the renewed plan.
The next big hurdle: Advancing awareness and outreach
Although the work itself represents a significant step forward for women’s rights and participation in the DRC, if women themselves are unaware of the policies being enacted then how can they possibly benefit – let alone participate?
To ensure women and women’s rights organisations were aware of and included in the development of recommendations for the second NAP and its implementation on the ground, WILPF DRC brought together representatives from universities, civil society organisations, ministries, the army and the police to engage in conversations about UNSCR 1325 and the National Action Plan.
These knowledge sharing sessions were carried out everywhere, from Kinshasa, DRC to Geneva, Switzerland and Yaoundé, Cameroon – impacting women both within and beyond the borders of the DRC.
In Yaoundé, this meant sharing strategies and lessons learned with other WILPF Sections across Africa for advancing peace building and women’s contributions to conflict prevention and resolution. In May 2019, experienced women peace activists gathered for a regional meeting, representing 14 countries across the continent.
In Geneva, members of WILPF DRC, together with the WILPF Human Rights team, discussed the use of different human rights mechanisms for accountability. These lessons were then applied in international spaces like the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the DRC.
Drawing international attention to local concerns
WILPF DRC’s submissions to the CEDAW and UPR shed light on failures of the government to uphold existing laws for gender parity, pointing out irregularities in action and funding. They also leveraged gender perspectives to the small arms flow and pointed out the human rights violations against women working in artisanal mines.
For example, due to the CEDAW Committee’s line of questioning, the DRC’s Minister of Human Rights had to publicly acknowledge that the 30% quota for women’s participation in the law on the implementation of women’s rights declared by the Supreme Court of Justice of DRC (at the time) was unconstitutional and discriminatory. WILPF DRC was particularly pleased about this acknowledgement, since it meant that Congolese authorities publicly recognised their own failure to implement legal quotas and advance women’s participation in decision-making bodies.
Drawing widespread attention to women’s rights issues in the DRC also empowered more Congolese women to step forward and raise their voices for change.
Small victories, big impact
No victory, big or small, comes easily. Insufficient and irregular funding are major barriers in the ability of grassroots organisations to continue their work. A significant amount of effort is required of WILPF DRC’s members, who carry out the majority of their actions on a voluntary basis. With even a five-minute speech to policymakers often requiring months of planning, time is always at a premium.
Despite the uphill struggles they face every day, our fierce peace activists prevail, speaking truth to power and demonstrating that advancing peace and women’s rights are part of an ongoing process – not just a single moment in time.