Across the African continent, women are claiming their power to ‘direct their lives’
As women and girls globally continue to shape humanity, we are entering an exciting period of history where the world expects balance and grassroots activists are transforming lives. In the United States, March is Women’s History Month so we have taken the opportunity to highlight some of the unsung heroes on the frontlines of conflict in sub-Saharan Africa and recognize their achievements.
In October 2018, Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist and founder of Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for his tireless efforts in treating 85,864 women and girls for sexual violence and complex gynecological injuries. There, an environment of deeply rooted gender inequities, decades of insecurity, harmful cultural practices and Ebola outbreaks have contributed to high rates of sexual and gender-based violence.
Living in a small mud hut trying to earn money in the North Kivu region of DRC, Fatima*, a survivor, shares her story.
“It happened four years ago. I was traveling to Ngunga, two days’ walk from my village to sell palm oil. I was with 10 other women and six teenage boys from my village. On the second day of our voyage, we set out at 7 a.m. Soon after, we were surprised by two armed men. They took us into the forest and they raped us, one after the other. When they were done with us, the young men put a gun to our heads and forced us to also have sex. These young men were like children to us. I didn’t tell my husband what happened because I was afraid he would leave me. But two months later, an armed group came to my village and took four men by gunpoint to transport baggage. My husband was among them. I never saw him again.”
In the DRC’s eastern region, Fatima’s story is not unique. Violence against women is quite often normalized and goes unpunished. Routinely, husbands leave their wives when they find out they have been sexually abused.
Ushindi, a key USAID program with the Panzi Foundation in Eastern Congo, has directly assisted nearly 30,000 survivors of sexual gender-based violence from 2010 to 2017. Ushindi, which means “we overcome” in Swahili, provides holistic care — addressing the medical, psychosocial, legal and socio-economic needs of gender-based violence survivors in the North and South Kivu provinces.
The program helps reintegrate survivors like Fatima into their communities. Through the program, she says, “the shame began to leave us. We began to feel alive again; to understand what happened, and that it was time to leave it in the past.”
Louise Bashige, a social protection program specialist at USAID’s mission in DRC, said Ushindi has a greater community benefit: it has increased gender balance and reduced gender-based violence incidents in thousands of Congolese households noted.
“The holistic components of SGBV-care [of the projects] restore dignity, justice, retribution and opportunities to be self-sufficient. Income-generating activities gives survivors the power to decide and direct their lives,” she added.
Empowering Women and Impacting Livelihoods
In addition to supporting Dr. Mukwege’s groundbreaking work, USAID has worked with the DRC Government and other partners to positively impact the daily lives of women.
According to the World Bank, DRC has made progress in the following ways: prohibiting gender discrimination in access to credit and removing restrictions on women working in construction; removing a legal requirement that wives obey their husbands; and reforming family laws to allow women to choose where to live in the same way as men. Previously husbands had selected the family’s residence and their wives had to live there.
In fact, the biggest area of reform across sub-Saharan Africa is new laws affecting gender-based violence. The passage of laws or policies are only as good as their application, but they do provide a foundation from which gender equality can be strengthened, says USAID’s Africa Gender Advisor Matthew D. Emry.
“These are only a few of the necessary steps towards gender equality and women’s empowerment in the DRC and across Africa,” he says. “Let’s see what more we can do together.”
In our own U.S. foreign assistance space, President Trump signed the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act into law in January, requiring USAID to target 50 percent of USAID’s small and medium enterprise resources to benefit women. This is just one way the Agency demonstrates that empowering women through enterprise-driven development helps ensure that families, economies and societies can reach their fullest potential.
From Ethiopia appointing its first female president to the West African nation of Mali securing its youngest and first female minister for foreign affairs, a notable decade of progress across the continent of Africa shows signs the world is moving in a direction of #BalanceforBetter.
* Name changed.
About the Author
Mariama Keita is the Communication and Partnership Advisor in USAID’s Bureau for Africa, and a gender champion who provides support to Ebola recovery programs in West Africa. Follow @USAIDAfrica for more.