Rosine is 15 years old and intends to be the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo one day. In fact, she already has an action plan which she reels forth with very little prompting. She tells us that first she knows she must do well in school, learn to be tolerant and patient and of course self-confidant–something she adds, she already is. We concur.
Queen is about the same age and wants to be a veterinarian; however, since there are few women vets, she knows she will have to be a “pioneer.” Rosi wants to be the leader of an organization that supports the rights of women and children in Congo, because it is women and children who are most damaged by conflict.
Naomi wants to be a judge–but not just any judge she stipulates, “a fair judge.” She says,
When I see what is happening in my country, I am shocked.”When I am a judge, the case will not be decided on whether you are rich or poor. I will be objective.
I listen to these young women and I see Congo’s future and I have hope. These young women are all in a leadership program that is run by Jewish World Watch’s partners at International Medical Corps to inspire young people to become the future leaders of Congo.
We talk so much about the atrocities faced by the women in Congo. Approximately 2,000 women a year are treated at Panzi Hospital for rape, and we visited a village where seven young women had been raped in the last two months. And that was only the reported rapes. We speak about the factors that contribute to sexual violence — the war, the culture of impunity, the lower status of women in the community, power, control. But we do not talk enough about the remarkable women of Congo, and it is truly the women who make up the heart and life force of the country.
When I am in Congo, I am always struck by how hard the women work. We see women walking miles, up and down the mountains carrying enormous, heavy loads on backs and heads. Women struggling to support their families after their villages or their own bodies have been mutilated by war. They are amazing, resilient, dynamic women — women in all stages of life and with different educational and financial opportunities. They are united by a common determination to seek a better life for themselves, their children, and their country. It is not an accident that the Congo militias target women: If you destroy the women, you destroy the heart and soul of the community.
Then there are the women we meet who run many of the women’s projects here–women determined to empower and inspire their sisters to move forward. They are dedicated to changing the male, patriarchal culture of Congo. They work tirelessly to teach both men and women about women’s rights, how to cherish and value women. They talk about rape and ask challenging questions like whether a woman who wears a short skirt deserves rape–questions that startle and anger but force old misconceptions and values to the surface. They model strength, determination and resilience for the younger women.
One day we visited the Animal Husbandry Project run by Women for Women International. We saw a very different group of women, but women who inspire just the same. The project works with women to become self-sufficient by teaching them entrepreneurial skills. We sat with the women to hear how the project had benefited them. These are women whose lives have been touched by years of conflict. Many, if not all, are survivors of rape. At the very least, they are impoverished, struggling to survive with their families. But here they tell us with great pride that they now can write their names, that they have started a business and now have more food for their families. Many have used the money they made to pay for their children’s schooling. They now see a future for themselves and their children. They too model the resilience of Congo.
I have learned that the solutions are in our hands. We must have our eyes open. There must be a solution to the problems in Congo and we must find it.
I have no doubt that Rosi, and Queen and Rosine and the other women of Congo will one day do just that. In their capable hands, Congo will one day be able to move forward, and without them, it never will.
Diana Buckhantz, who just returned from a trip to Congo’s eastern provinces, is a board member of Jewish World Watch (JWW), which fights against genocide and mass atrocities worldwide. JWW’s work is currently focused on the ongoing crises in Sudan and Congo. While in Congo with fellow JWW board members Janice Kamenir-Reznik and Diane Kabat she met with JWW’s on-the-ground project partners, participated in the dedication of JWW’s Chambucha Rape and Crisis Center, and to work with survivors of Congo’s decades-long conflict.
Jewish World Watch partners with both Women for Women International and International Medical Corps to support the women of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. If you are interested in supporting this crucial work, please contact Naama Haviv at Naama@jww.org.