Women Hold the Key to Peace and Prosperity in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Women for Women International is a global, grassroots women’s organization that provides women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts with the tools and resources they need to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency. Since 1993, Women for Women International has served over 271,000 women worldwide and distributed over $89 million in direct aid, program services and micro-credit loans. Women for Women International currently has field operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Rwanda, Nigeria, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Women for Women International – Democratic Republic of Congo (WfWI – DRC) launched its program operations in 2004 in response to the systematic and widespread use of rape as a weapon of war in one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II. Over 200,000 women and girls have been raped since the conflict started in 1996. The Congolese conflict has increased insecurity, criminality, violence and poverty, creating one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of all time. Women for Women International believes that without the active participation of women and the incorporation of women’s perspective at all levels of decision making, the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved. Thus, our year-long program offers socially excluded women who have survived violence and war with health and literacy training, vocational and technical skills development, rights awareness and life skills as well as income generation assistance. Participants to our programs include widows, single heads of household, returnees and internally displaced persons. Over 36,000 women have accessed program services in our DRC chapter.
Rights Awareness Education and Vocational Skills Development
Even in the face of violence, poverty and the physical and mental trauma associated with the protracted conflict, Congolese women envision a more peaceful and prosperous Congo, they hope of a future in which they will be able to live and work freely without fear. When they enroll in Women for Women International’s program, they dream of using the education and the skills they learn to earn an income and improve their family situation. They also receive rights awareness training to help them understand their rights, so they may become more active participants in family and community decision-making processes. These sessions also serve to unite women and build a support system that strengthens solidarity and enables them to advocate on behalf of themselves and the group.
The majority of the women who enroll in our programs cannot write more than their names; the World Bank estimates that only 56 percent of women in the DRC are literate. WfWI’s literacy program serves to develop women’s reading and writing skills, which are critical to their ability to access information, employment opportunities, control funds and participate in the social and political activities of their community. Another critical component to Women for Women International’s programming is building and strengthening women’s vocational and technical skills targeted to identified market opportunities. Local instructors provide training in areas such as ceramic tile production, soap making, tailoring, basket weaving, food processing and many others, so that women can access income generating opportunities, thereby improving the health, education and nutrition of their families. WfWI –DRC also support women who are entrepreneurially-inclined, with business start-up advisory services and access to capital and input supplies. After graduation, women are able to form cooperatives, start their businesses and access microfinance opportunities. With knowledge and access to resources, Women for Women International believes that Congolese women can actively participate in the reconstruction of their communities, country and economy. Research findings from the World Bank confirm that direct investment in women is key to stimulating economic growth since women reinvest 90 percent of their income in their families, compared with men who reinvest only 30 – 40 percent.
Food Security and Agriculture
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a vast, fertile, mineral-rich land with tremendous potential for agricultural and economic growth, but the continuing insecurity prevents Congolese people from being able to enjoy the benefits of the vast natural and mineral resources within the country. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, one in every two children across the country is chronically malnourished and findings from the Council on Foreign Relations indicate that most Congolese eat only one to two meals a day. Women and children are the most harmed by the food crisis because when there is not enough food to go around women and girls eat last, which is especially debilitating for young children and pregnant or lactating mothers. Therefore, in order to adequately tackle this food crisis, women must play a central role in agricultural development policies and programs. WfWI-DRC is piloting a new income generation program known as the Commercial Integrated Farming initiative (CIFI). Over a period of three years, 3,000 Congolese women will be given the tools and resources they need to produce high-value crops for commercial markets. This commercial farming initiative was initially launched in Rwanda and Sudan in 2008 to provide Sudanese and Rwandese women with organic agricultural and cooperative development skills to enable them to grow food and generate income for long-term economic and food security. The success of CIFI in Sudan and Rwanda was remarkable. In Sudan for example, nearly 80% of participants were on-track to earn double per-capita GDP at the end of only six months. This is a critical shift against a global context where 70% of the world’s smallholder farmers are women, who yet own less than 2% of the world’s land and customarily survive at only subsistence levels of agriculture. As more women are trained to be skilled farmers in the rebuilding of DRC’s agricultural sector, they will not only be at the center of agricultural and economic development, but they will also be the driving force in reversing Congo’s devastating poverty. Empowering Congolese women with the means to generate an income gives them a renewed sense of purpose and newfound respect from their families and communities.
Engaging Men as Advocates for Women’s Rights
While Women for Women International’s primary mission is to give women the tools and resources they need to rebuild their lives, we have seen in our 17 years of experience that they are not able to do so when violence is rampant and insecurity is a major source of fear and distress. The women we work with tell us that the worse economic problem facing their community is instability. Thus, to tackle the culture of impunity that allows perpetrators of rape to roam freely, Women for Women International believes that we need to engage men in the dialogue about women’s rights and value to society. As Christine Karumba, DRC Country Director, says, “It takes men to stop rape in Congo.” To this end, Women for Women International has developed an innovative program to work with influential male community leaders to raise awareness about the importance of women’s rights and contributions to the community and economy, and the important role they as men and as leaders can play in working to end the epidemic of violence against women that is not only detrimental to women’s health but also to their families, communities and ultimately the social and economic stability of Congo. As one DRC military officer and MLP participant explained “I never understood the impact of rape on women. Rape cases brought before the military were treated with apprehension due to this lack of awareness and I therefore showed little concern for the victims. I did not see the importance of punishing the perpetrators. After the MLP training, I understood that I needed to change my perceptions…” By helping leaders such as this military officer, understand the harmful effects of violence against women, Congolese men and women can begin to work together to combat gender based violence and achieve the ultimate goal of establishing a peaceful and prosperous society. Through the Men’s Leadership Program, we have trained more than 1,000 Congolese male community leaders who have become agents of change, raising awareness and mobilizing other men to actively advocate for greater respect for women’s rights, thereby facilitating community development by engaging both men and women as partners.
For more information on Women for Women International’s work in the DRC and globally, please visit our website at www.womenforwomen.org or contact Lyric Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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