By Bahati Valerie, Co-founder of COFAPRI. December 2013.
Bringing More Sewing Machines and School Equipment
In October (2013), I went to the DR Congo to take more school materials to the children whose education COFAPRI sponsors and sewing machines for the women and girls to start sewing activities for their life betterment.
COFAPRI was able to purchase these materials and equipment with donations received from supporters around the world.
The women and children were very thankful for such strong support.
“We thank and re-thank this group for the support it is bringing to us and our children. We are grateful to every person who is helping us in these remote villages.
These sewing machines and school materials, as well as the school fees, are a way of laying a solid foundation for our future and that of our children; again we say thank you.”
Nshobole Alice, mother of three.
Progress Despite Adversity
In November, I returned again to the DR Congo for a follow-up on the various activities the members are involved in such as the sewing activities and animal-rearing.
The weather was terrible as it was raining every day; sometimes, from the morning to the evening.
This made the trip very hard as roads are nonexistent in the villages and where our members are based; they are in unspeakable conditions. Despite this, I felt highly motivated to meet COFAPRI members in their remote villages. They live in mountainous and remote villages where rebel groups often rape women and girls.
Despite the situation in this area, the girls and women are doing very well with their sewing and rearing activities and this gives me more hope they are on a good track – and I have great hope for their better future now.
Although COFAPRI still has a very long way to go, I feel totally satisfied due to their mega commitment.
I met the women and girls in the various locations where they usually sew and meet; I met with mothers who are survivors of rape, and those who suffer the atrocities of domestic violence and discrimination. We exchanged on various issues like the situation of child victims of domestic abuse, women living with HIV, the hardship of wives in villages, lack of education, and what can be done to overcome all of this.
The Danger of Teen Pregnancies
The other point that was raised by the members was adolescent pregnancy.
On this point, the members who were present, both genders, strongly accepted that this issue is giving them a headache since it is dangerous and in other situations, often leads the adolescent mother to die and sometimes both the mother and the infant pass away. In fact, in most of rural areas of the DR Congo, this has become the primary cause of death for many adolescent girls.
This has far-reaching consequencies – in most cases, the girls originate from very poor families. Remember, the majority of families in rural DR Congo live in poverty and they barely have the means to reach hospitals once pregnant, as the boy or man responsible for the pregnancy has disappeared.
In these villages, young girls get untimely pregnancies because they are poor; they are often cheated by boys or men called 'sugar daddies' who make them pregnant. This means that once the young adolescent has become pregnant, her life is at risk.
“The situation of our young girls here is very for both the babies and their mothers. The man who gives a child girl this burden has disappeared and the hardship remains to mother child and her family.
We have suffered a lot with this here; you see that the young girl suffers double. She has no moral support from the pregnancy owner and no material, as she will even miss clothes for the new born if born at all.
As these young girls are very young, they are likely to die because of pregnancy; the same for the fetus in their first month of life. If they could wait until they become 20 years old, the baby can survive.”
Based on our discussions, we found that adolescent pregnancy often happens because parents are reluctant to discuss sex-related issues to their children in the home. The parents should take this issue seriously and educate their children accordingly. Thus, the mother can teach her daughter and so can the father teach the son.
With openness in matters of sex, the children can learn a lot. The whole process remains the responsibility of the parents, as in these villages most children do not go to school due to extreme poverty and even if they go, the parents’ role should not be replaced by the teacher’s – but both through collaboration and frank communication on salient issues like child pregnancies.
In this way, family planning can be discussed with no fear or shame.
“We have seen a lot here with our young girls; they run here and there. Even if you tell them they cannot listen to you.
They often tell us our time has passed and that we have to let them enjoy life. They forget that danger is ahead. They can’t even think of how to avoid pregnancy; this is how they can use protection or just abstain from premature sex. I think we parents must be clear, open and strict with our young daughters otherwise, we will lose a lot.”
M’ Mahanya Matilde [M’ Mahanya means the married daughter of]
The situation in DR Congo rural villages remains odious and scary. Very young girls get married and so adolescent pregnancies in these areas are to girls who live with their husbands, as they have been legally married.
It is true that child marriage, like adolescent pregnancy is a big problem in these areas since majority of the women here aged 20–30 got married before they reached 18 years old; some were married even before they reached 15 years old and it becomes understandable they got early pregnancies with lots of risks for themselves and their fetuses.
These women also admitted that married teenage girls are not even likely to use contraception. Married teens in all countries are less likely to use contraception than unmarried teens. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo for example, unmarried teenage girls are twice as likely as their married peers to use a modern method of birth limitation and other contraceptives.
“In our areas here, our husbands are most often the chiefs of the families. No one else is like them in the family because they are the sole family decision-maker.
Being men and household masters, the fatherhood becomes automatically a important indication of virility in many cultures of our country and I think, mostly in our villages here where our daughters have little space to negotiate contraceptive use. This is also seen even in the situation when they wish to use family planning ways.
Moreover, not only are married teenage girls less likely to use contraception, they are also less likely to report that they have an unmet need for it.”
Social and Cultural Attitudes Towards Women and Girls
Older women here admitted that too many adolescent pregnancies are intended and planned in rural areas of the DR Congo. This indicates that throughout much of rural DR Congo motherhood is often simply seen in a traditional angle; ie, 'that is what girls are for.'
‘We the women and our dear daughters in this part of the world accept our social value.
In fact, our social value is strongly deep-rooted in our aptitude for reproduction, for making children for our husbands and families.
We the women in these rural areas surely consider our motherhood not only as the final step towards becoming an adult, but equally the foundation of our daughters and our identity and position within our communities and families.”
M’ Muhirhi Bonnette
Such beliefs have been made a way of life that is instilled in women’s minds from their early age.
Changing these mindsets requires a lot of commitment and efforts. Some women even think that if these values are rooted out from their communities, the family life of the woman becomes meaningless. So, young girls have internalized these values and beliefs; by adolescence, few girls and women see any reason to put off maternity.
Moreover, the women and girls exposed the hardship they go through with their families.
Their own words tell better their stories:
“The life we live in the villages here is too bad. We have husbands, but they hardly help us. They spend days and days in beer and in other women. They forget they have children with us and they must feed, clothe, and school them.”
“I have no job as I did not study and all my children the same. Last time, I came late when you were giving books, pens, and pencils to other children. I hope next time you will remember me, too. I suffer as I did not study, but I don’t want this to happen to my children; they are still young and I hope you will help me, too.”
“Look, in order to eat, I have to sell a banana bunch and I get something like 2 US$; this is from which I have to buy salt, oil, and food for the whole week. This is not life, but as we can’t kill ourselves, we endure.”
“Change is Coming...”
Some months previously, I learnt sewing skills and went to share them with COFAPRI women and girls in the villages of DR Congo. Accordingly, three sewing centres were launched so that these women and girls can practice the skills they had acquired.
On this occasion of my visit, the women and girls told me that they feel their lives are changing little by little as they can generate some income for their families – and that in addition to this, they learn a lot once they are seated in teams.
I told the members about their great supporter and new friend, Livi Nkanga, who is a student in Michigan, USA. In the summer, Livi sacrificed her birthday by making a successful appeal to raise funds to help COFAPRI women, girls, and children.
The members send their massive heartfelt thanks to Livi for her incredible generosity to the people she has never met; on behalf of the team,
“Girls like Livi are few, but needed to support women and girls’ endeavour for self development in this world. She helps us but she does not know us; she has never seen us and does not know us but we have been in her heart days and nights. For us, this is really and hugely meaningful and so we thank her for her generosity and good will to support us in our activities.
God help her to complete her studies successfully. We also thank COFAPRI and Safe World for Women because now many people know us around the world on account of them.”
Bengehya Mama Fille.
The sewing centres and the animals reared by the women are tremendously advantageous for them.
“Before we used to stay home the whole week and ask everything of the husband who has no job sometimes and if he has he gives you but with a lot of accompanying words that often used to hurt morally.
Today, we have no words to thank COFAPRI and everyone helping us like the kind girl you told us. God be with her in her life studies and home. Because of all of you, and the UK women, also we thank everyone. You are the one we can see here today; so we tell you today that our lives are becoming different to that we lived before.
Change is coming and we are sure very soon we will be able to do something big. We can now make some money from sewing activities and this helps a lot our children; in the groups we sit when sewing, we also exchange a lot and we learn many things from our friends in the team.”
“My sister Béatrice is right, and I can add that the animals we have been given are also helping us a lot.
We have pigs, rabbits, and guinea pigs that are helping us in three ways. They can be sold and we get cash to buy different items we need at home and for the studies of our children. We can get meat from them and this avoids us from some malnourishment consequences. And also the dung of these animals is being used in our home garden, which increases our production/harvest.
You can now see that we are moving from the ground and tomorrow we’ll be famous and self-dependent – and so be useful for ourselves and our families, communities, and the nation.”
Byadunia M’ Mwikala
Committed to the Village Women & Girls
I am deeply committed to the cause of the village women and girls of rural DR Congo. The motivation that pushed me to learn sewing skills and share them with the women in DR Congo rural areas is the same reason why again, in last October 2013, I was inspired to learn knitting skills.
I strongly believe that it my duty to help my sisters, daughters and mothers in any way I can. I do not like supporting them with cash, but they can get cash from my support. I mean that when I teach them some skills that I also have learned to help them with, they are gaining more than cash. These skills can long last, but money can be easily used and finish. They will have the skills endlessly.
Knitting materials such as ball threads and knitting needles were given to the members present. They were also given additional sewing materials such as needles, pieces of chalk, sewing tapes, etc.
In addition, they were given a mature pig with its five piglets and 10 rabbits to strengthen their activities. These were purchased for the members. All of them were thankful to COFAPRI founders and everyone who is helping them in one way or another and they were delighted with the steps they are making from month to month.
I also visited the place where a sewing room is being built, but due to heavy rains, the construction activities could not be finished on time. The members promised to finish the construction as soon as possible and that when I return, I will find the room ready.
Meantime, they do their sewing activities in an open air, but this is unsatisfactory as once it rains, everything is hindered.