Since August 1998, the Democratic
Republic of Congo (DRC) has been torn apart by a civil
war pitting the government of Kinshasa-- the capital--
against two principal rebel groups, the Congolese
Liberation Movement, or MLC, backed by Uganda, and
the Congolese Rally for Democracy, or RCD, backed
by Rwanda. Government forces have been allied with
Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia.
The war has left 2.5 million civilians
dead and sent nearly as many refiigees and displaced
persons fleeing into exile. This has left thousands
of children orphaned or separated from their families
and roaming the streets unaccompanied. Many of them
have been enlisted as soldiers by the various armies.
Women are systematically
raped after seizure of their towns and villages,
many becoming de facto heads of their families, forced
into hard labor or prostitution to provide for them.
On December 17, 2002, a peace accord
was signed in Pretoria between the warring parties,
under the aegis of the United Nations and the government
of South Africa-- an important step in seeking a diplomatic
solution to the Congolese crisis. The UN Mission in
the DRC boosted its ground troops to observe adherence
to the cease-fire and to help in the demobilization
and repatriation of armed foreign groups.
Early on, women formed a lobby group
alongside human rights organizations to bring politicians
around to such a peace accord. Women have spearheaded
initiatives leading to coordinated marches, written
memorandums, and foreign trips to plead the cause
of a war that that was being ignored due to its complexity.
All along women have been developing
plans for their vision of the political management
of the country. This initiative came from a collective
of women's groups known as Women
as Partners for Peace in Africa (WOPPA) led by
Ellyse Dimandja. "We fought on two fronts,"
said Dimandja. "We had to convince men that political
negotiation in the Congo was imperative and that women
had the right to their say." These women agitated
for and obtained a female quota at inter-Congolese
peace dialogues set in motion by a 1999 Lusaka cease-fire
agreement. All through the political negotiations,
women lobbied to convince politicians that peace was
necessary in order to reconstruct the nation and relieve
a population living in misery in such a wealthy country.
At the grassroots, women organizers
of NGOs have poured efforts into familiarizing women
with the peace process and informing them about electoral
basics. Roughly half of all Congolese women are illiterate
and do not participate in any decisions affecting
their society. Women hold an insignificant number
of decision-making positions: three female ministers
out of 30 in the government, a lone female president
of a political party, no female administrators of
public enterprises, a scant few in parliament. Small
wonder that women in political, religious, and civil
sectors are demanding a greater role for women. That
said, the priority today is building a culture of
peace. Clashes in the northeastern Ituri region between
three armed factions call into question cease-fire
accords and hold back implementation of the Pretoria
political accord. Women's organizations are actively
engaged in keeping the DRC moving toward peace. In
February a diverse group of 300 women, representing
women's groups that had united to pressure warring
parties to abide by the power-sharing pact, blocked
traffic in the center of Kinshasa as they held a prayer
vigil to protest reports of cannibalism in Ituri.
"We condemn all crimes, no matter who committed
them, said one of the demonstrators.