Today the world celebrates the 101st International Women’s Day (begun in 1911). This year’s theme, declared by the United Nations, is “Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty,” as highlighted in this message from the UN Secretary General, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon.
In countries around the world, rural women and girls are the main breadwinners in their families, in addition to being the main agricultural workforce in their communities. Yet their work is unpaid and they endure immeasurable sacrifice for their community and their families.
Rural Women and Girls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
The situation of rural women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is very challenging as they don’t have regular access to health and maternal care. Customary laws and practices are very discriminatory towards women, for example, women don’t have the right to inherit properties, and access to education is mostly limited to men and boys.
The rates of sexual violence are higher in the DRC than in any other place in the world, and the armed conflict that has been ravaging that part of the country for nearly 16 years continues. Most of the women and girl victims of rape in eastern Congo are living in rural areas where militias, rebels and soldiers are targeting them and there’s not an adequate framework for their protection. Also, many women face domestic violence and do not have means to speak out against it.
I have a particular consideration for these women and girls in the eastern DRC who endure rape and sexual violence. They often show resilience and bravery in speaking out against the violence, working for redress and accountability for the perpetrators. But an adequate response is lacking as the whole accountability mechanism in the Congo is paralyzed. Furthermore, these women and girls are not involved in the decision making process of policies targeting them.
Access to Justice
Although the Congo has the most progressive laws in Africa with respect to sexual violence, few perpetrators are brought to justice, which encourages a culture of impunity for rape crimes, including other serious crimes of concern for the international community.
The following video features a woman from a rural area in southern eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo who went to report a rape case to the local police. Unfortunately, no action has been taken to arrest the perpetrators. That’s what most women and girls who are victims of rape in the Congo endure: a lack of accountability despite existing laws to address rape and sexual violence. The video was co-produced by WITNESS and our local partners in the DRC of the Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice. Watch the excerpt now:
As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, we should demand concrete actions be taken to effectively protect rural women and girls against rape and sexual violence in conflict and non-conflict situations. For the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, an effective implementation of existing laws are the key for the real protection of rural women and girls, and the reform and abolition of discriminatory customary laws and practices will empower rural women and girls.
Learn more about our campaign on gender-based violence in armed conflict and political repression. Ending rape and sexual violence in the DRC is one of the focuses of the campaign. Stay tuned, we’ll soon be launching the full 25-minute video excerpted above.