By Bahati Valérie, Co-Founder, COFAPRI. June 2012.
Following recent outbreaks of further conflict, fear of war again dominates people's daily lives in DR Congo. Bahati Valérie, co-founder of COFAPRI, discusses the traditional role of women as conflict mediators in the DRC.
A Woman's Heart is Not for War
"Raising a weapon against a woman was considered as one of the most abominable of acts in society."
In traditional DRC communities, women were considered as very peaceful beings.
Women personified gentleness and goodness, thus justifying the mission of peace which they were assigned by society.
To this point, a woman commented: “The concept – mother, means a person who bears, teaches, and supports peace. A woman cannot cause home instability if she was well educated by her mother and father."
Mugisho Theophile and Bahati Valérie take it in turns to cross the border to meet with the women back in their DRC homeland, to share ideas relating to social and domestic harmony.
On this occasion, Bahati discussed with the women ways in which cultural traditions can help to promote peace.
Women are bearers of human life. They never and will never support wars and any other conflicts. Women are not for arms, they are for peace in society and in homes, with everyone.
This is because women’s status and heart are not for war, they are for long lasting peace, psychological and moral peace.
Women as Mediators
Women are never armed as men are, when a man takes up arms, the woman holds his hand and tells him to put it down. As women are not supportive of armed or unarmed conflicts, this has actually facilitated the interposition and mediation of women during confrontation, may it be armed or not.
Some men who are eager for war and violence never listen to the woman’s heart of peace in herself and in her home and family.
This is what explains better why raising a weapon against a woman was traditionally considered as one of the most abominable of acts in society. Even in extreme cases of violence, such as punitive expeditions and pillaging, women’s lives had always to be spared.
This was supported by one woman who explained:
“Today, things have changed. Today, the men who are hungry for killing and thirsty for blood like tiger never protect women who are their mothers, sisters and daughters.
Their first target is a woman, a girl; they find them at the river fetching water, in the field, harvesting their crops, even in their hiding places, they pull them out homes and wherever they are to destroy them.
They do them harm – bad things, and because of this, some women lose their homes, become covered from huge shame as they have been women of killers. This has changed the heart of some peaceful women to become even more aggressive than men, but we have to help violent men to change.
We can only achieve this by shunning violence. We were taught in our homes that violence is not good and that we have to teach our children to avoid it in their life.”
The COFAPRI women said that women should help regulate and not fuel conflict.
Ready to Make Peace, But Needing a Voice
In the DRC, women are seen as dissuading violence, and men as encouraging it. The equation of women with peace meant that in DRC societies, likening a woman to a man was derogatory and implied that the woman was violent and totally lacking in gentleness and tenderness.
Generally speaking, women produced and protected life in our societies. The same women were equally the vectors of the cultural values required to promote harmony in society and consolidate peace.
Really, in order to prevent male predominance in society leading the latter to its own destruction, custom assigned to women the function of principal regulator of social relationships. That right permeates the mother, wife, and older woman with a moral authority which they had to impose on the men. The latter were considered to be generally hot-blooded and contentious.
In extreme cases of conflict, the women would succeed in inducing the men to adopt peaceful means or symbolic procedures in order to restore peace.
The DRC society expected women to always react constructively whenever life was in danger.
Older Women Commanded Respect in Society
A fundamental fact of traditional DRC societies was the sacred character of the respect given to the elderly in general – and to elderly women in particular.
The older women were respected by everyone.Furthermore, they played a key role in crisis management and conflict resolution.
Thus, when a conflict degenerated into armed violence, an appeal would usually be made to a third party of mature years to calm the tension and reconcile the combatants.
Such an appeal for mediation was usually made to a woman who enjoyed the consideration and respect of all who knew her.
An example is a tribe called Zande in the DRC. In a situation of war among the Zande, the oldest women of the clan would go to meet the opposing clan, and to interpose themselves between the fighters in order to make them see reason.
Naked Grandmothers Wield Ultimate Power
If words proved fruitless, the women would threaten to expose their nakedness or to go down on their knees.
This threat would often help the fighters to cease fire and declare a truce if not total cessation of war. Another member explained:
“The fighters of that time were educated and had respect for the elder women. They feared to see nakedness of their mothers. Today, this is what they are looking for. Today, if a woman tries to show the fighters her nakedness, she will regret and see what “the cat saw in the bush”.
(This is a local expression to mean if you dare, you’ll get what you actually wanted.)
Exposing nakedness or going down on the knees were meant to curse those who bore the responsibility for such grave acts of war.
Because of the respect which the enemy soldiers had for the women, they would usually put down their weapons before the fateful acts were accomplished.
If there was no lying down of arms, the older women, naked and on their knees, would crawl towards the foolhardy combatants and tell them some words to show they don’t need war as it is destructive for materials and human lives.
Sometimes, the assailants still refused to see reason and marched on the village. In this case, they suffered the ultimate punishment for having disobeyed and obliged their “grandmothers” to expose their nakedness.
This is reality in Africa: words have power, particularly words said as a curse, though that is down to cultural belief.
The Traditional Roots of Peace Start with Girls
During their discussions, COFAPRI women revealed that in their traditional societies, women were considered as procreators, without a doubt. They said that it was because of them clans existed and functioned, sometimes. In fact, not only did they produce life, but also they educated the family. It was also among their duties to socialize the children; this concerned both the girls and the boys before they integrated into any social groups for initiation.
These women argued that the education of boys was just to prepare them to become true men – traditionally meaning, a man who is prepared to work for his family and get all respect from his family members. Sometimes, this means a man who is feared by family members; some people believe that being feared is a symbol of masculinity.
Besides, boys could learn about their social roles and activities. In initiating these boys, they could also learn the different tasks attributed to men, especially those considered dangerous and requiring physical strength.
One of these women said:
“In our times, a boy had to prepare to be a father – the man who will defend and protect his family, his brothers and sisters, in case something bad happens. I support that his education must differ from that of his sister; a man is a man in everything he does and he learns.”
Girls Learn Mediation Skills from Mothers and Aunts
Each woman had a say with regard to the traditional role of girls, and what they said can be summarized in the following ideas.
A crucial feature of the education of girls was the exclusion of any form of violence that would be harmful to their role in society.
It would not be acceptable for a woman to trigger violence in her home or around her. When a girl was being educated, the role of her mother and her aunt was very fundamental. These women were helped by other older mothers who belonged to the same clan. Their role was to instill into the young girls the essential social values underlying a harmonious household and peace in the community.
When the girl became a wife and mother, she had a duty to hand down the same values to her own daughters. As a mother-in-law, she was responsible for helping her daughter-in-law to run an efficient household and relieve sources of tension.
During the period of training by her mother, the girl also acquired enough expertise to play the role of moderator in her own home and, later on, in relation to her own daughter-in-law and the other members of the family. Her task was to preserve the harmony of the married couple, the family, and the clan.
DRC Wars of the Past are Unlike the Present Situation
In the past and today, the DRC has lived through different wars. The wars after the topple of Dictator Mobutu (in 1997) are the worst.
Mobutu was a dictator for 32 years, and during this time, women suffered evils, but not abuse as it is today. Domestic violence and other forms of abuse were there, but today, violence against women and girls is even more widespread due to repetitive wars whose aim is to get minerals, using rape as a weapon against women and girls.
In a situation of invasion, force would have been often applied to stop the enemy, but force does not resolve a conflict, it rather fuels it. The one defeated may return, but this does not mean he accepts defeat. He goes back for better preparation.
However, when there was a wide scope for conflict in traditional society, equally numerous ways of restoring peace were thought of immediately.
Members of COFAPRI enunciate that the causes of conflict in traditional societies were manifold and are quite different of the ones they see in the country today.
In the past, various conflicts were due to adultery and power-sharing. Disputes between children were the main causes of violent disputes between parents.
To some extent, this conflict turned into clan-wide contentions. If, for instance, there was a murder of a clan member, the head of the clan might call for revenge. Witchcraft, land boundaries, and straying animals, were all further reasons that people would become involved in a bloody conflict and confrontation.
During wars, fighters are wounded. So, they are often brought back home – and it is the women who take care of their wounds, wash them, and seek medication for them, until they are healed or die.
Women From all Over DRC Brave the Firing to Negotiate Peace
This background gives COFAPRI women a better understanding of why, during the consecutive wars the country has experienced for over 16 years now, women from all the corners of the DRC, from different religions, different social and marital statuses and ethnic groups, braved the shells being fired in order to meet the fighters and negotiate peace.
A member present at the discussion added,
“We have suffered a lot; more than 15 years not cultivating, not making children, not harvesting, not praying – not visiting friends and relatives in peace is a quite long period.
We want peace, We pray for peace everyday and we want to be considered when discussing peace issues in our homes and in society. We suffer more than men and yet, we did not start the war and we do not even know why it is there and who brought it.
If we are asked how to make peace, we are ready to contribute; we know how to make peace, but our leaders never ask us.”
Women, like COFAPRI members can do something to promote conflict management countrywide.
The Power to Build a Peaceful Society
COFAPRI women believe they are endowed with some power that can lead to building a peaceful society.
They have a heart of pity, which can make them be good peace seekers.
If decision makers can allow women to show what they know about peace, they can do it successfully.
Since they are mothers, who conceive and deliver, this status makes them not be harmful, but live in peace because they have protected life in their womb for nine months. This explains why they can’t destroy the life they have supported earlier in the pregnancy.
Society has given them the task of nurturing and educating the children, which prepares the latter to their adulthood. Although, they are not directly involved in open mediation and negotiation for peace when there is war, they are still strong, peaceful advisers behind doors.
However, women alone cannot do anything; they have to work jointly with men.
This is logical, since most of the violence women suffer is men’s invention. So, in seeking a solution, men must not be ignored. As men create conflicts, they are also needed to help to resolve them. On the other hand, the men who are decision makers should involve women in peaceful processes of seeking, building and protecting peace for social harmony.
Women can successfully practice peace and everyone can benefit from it.
Traditionally, women are the ones who teach the whole society about peace and the destructive effects of violence, conflicts, and wars.