By Mugisho Ndabuli Theophile, Co-founder/Executive Director, COFAPRI
"They took all they wanted. Next, they told me that to help me I had to marry the brother of my late husband; that is the culture here..." COFAPRI member.
Every month, members of COFAPRI (Congolese Females Action for Promoting Rights and Development) meet in order to discuss different issues that are giving them headaches. Recently, they discussed the question of women’s land ownership in their respective villages.
Land is a man’s legacy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In a country like the DRC, land ownership is very important for family survival, particularly in villages where majority of people feed on cultivation. However, most women do not have access to it, although they are the ones who do the cultivation activities. This is explained by the social and political structures that neglect the woman as they consider her a second class person or an object. In fact, the few opportunities Congolese women have to acquire resources are the main determinant of their poverty or wealth rates. This creates a kind of contention over land acquisition in different areas of the DRC, particularly in remote villages.
Except for natural factors, most conflicts that are based on resources originate from systemic factors, such as state policies and increasing inequality among people – particularly between men and women, and within communities, people often fight over land in the DRC. Over and over again, the pursuit of gender balance in inheritance rights still remains one of the most difficult challenges in rights-based approaches due to well entrenched patriarchal characteristics of socioeconomic, cultural, and religious practices that are prevalent in the country.
The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, Article 1), defines discrimination against women as: any distinction, exclusion, or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on the basis of equality between men and women, of human rights or fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.
Efficient protection of people’s rights to land without discrimination is necessary for development and peaceful co-existence, here between women and men. But this is not the case in most villages of the DRC, particularity for the women of COFAPRI.
In the DRC, there are many cultural beliefs that foster the infringement of women’s rights regarding land. This is also supported by patriarchal practices that are deeply rooted in the society. These factors are true fuel for conflicts in and with different families.
Land conflicts often end in impoverishing people, and others are removed physically because of the same issues. Men and women are often confronted with land problems as they have no word in public; they shut up even if it is their land that is taken. They can’t go to the justice system because no one will listen to them and especially, no woman owns land here.
This situation makes them remain eternal land beggars and poor people.
The resulting conflicts from such gender-based violence in the DRC and the way they can be nonviolently resolved or transformed have always been neglected during discussions of men – the latter being the law makers and protectors. In the past, no man could sell his land because every family had enough of it and the population had not swollen yet as it is today. In villages, there is no business and people – particularly women, feed on cultivation activities; thus, everyone wants a plot of land to plough and rear animals on.
Today, there is modernism; so the people have been fond of owning land using every means possible to get a hold on it. People use every means at their disposal to acquire land – including competition for its ownership, as many people speculate and trade on it for profits. It has become a costly commodity.
Land is facing damage due to the activities of human beings, like wild fires that damage thousands of kilometers of land, including the fauna and the flora – and sometimes houses; people die in such wild fires. But also, there are natural hazards such as erosion and adverse environmental factors that have equally made the competition for land ownership and its security more intense.
Nothing else has cost as much in conflicts and disputes among individuals and communities in DRC villages as the issue of land ownership.
The pains and consequences of being excluded from ownership of such an essential resource are therefore very great for women and their daughters living in DRC remote villages. This is what COFAPRI members are experiencing for the moment; they are being discriminated against land possession on the basis of their gender. A DRC remote village woman and a widow states:
“We suffer a lot as we have not much land on which we can grow plants and breed our small goats. These help us get what to eat, but now – because we are women and as our husbands have died, their brothers, uncles and nephews have taken their land from me. They said that a woman has no right to have land, this is an atrocious social injustice here”.
Again, in this country there is a good law that totally protects women and their daughter against any injustice and discrimination. This is stipulated in the so called famous “code de la famille” But this text ha never been implemented. The DRC has a woman who is the minister of gender, but she does nothing to apply that law regarding women.
The law, no doubt, protects DRC women’s rights, but it is often ignored where it matters – at the village level, where the bulk of DRC population is found.
Additionally, the pluralistic but careless legal system towards women in the DRC makes solving this complicated state of affairs by formal means even more complex. According to some customary law, particularly in remote villages where COFAPRI members live, women have no inheritance rights, but are seen as chattels to be inherited at the death of their husbands, joining the category of the marginalized defenseless.
“My husband has died not long ago. When he was buried, four days later, I saw people coming to my home. They told me that they are brothers and uncles of my late husband. They told me that they came to take all his belongings, lands and animals. I had nothing to say as I can’t take them to the arms – fight them – and they took all they wanted. Next, they told me that to help me I had to marry the brother of my late husband; that is the culture here, so that he can be helping me and make the children of their brother grow”.
COFAPRI member - a young widow with three children
Having a meticulous view on how women are discriminated – and looked down in DRC remote villages particularly, we find there is a strong patriarchal oppression of women in these areas. Women and their daughters are openly and repeatedly living discrimination and gender inequality in the country. This implies that such gender bias would lead to poverty and reduction in economic growth, at individual, family, community, and national levels.
The issues pertaining to a particular, marginalised segment of the population, the remote village’s women, have also featured very prominently in raising awareness through different organisations such as COFAPRI and many others that are operating in the area.
These organizations regret the lack of adequate protection of this vulnerable group of women by the DRC legal system.
They always speak out and discuss the harmful effects of widowhood rituals and the injustices women in village experience as most of them are illiterate. These organizations recommend that all people, regardless age, sex, origin, or whatever, should be educated as this is a major step towards freedom from such obnoxious practices which are repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience.
We all know that there is still an existing gap in respect of the conflicts associated with the denial of women’s land property rights and how to resolve or transform them nonviolently. But the burden of COFAPRI women – and indeed, most DRC women, is such that the female gender is always at the receiving end of life that has now been perceived as a status and also she is denied her rights of property dispossession. Each stage of her life (single, married, or widowed) is faced with different forms of discrimination that results in conflicts.
In the DRC, it is commonplace that girls are given less chance to attend school compared to boys. Denying education to girls is a kind domestic violence towards them – just like obliging them to marry men they have never loved or been in touch with.
Such untimely marriages are only a way of devaluing girls, while boys are enjoying life.
The boys are the ones who will inherit the father’s name when he dies, and not the girl. Even if all the children are girls, they are not allowed to inherit their father's name.
A brother of the deceased man will inherit his belongings and sometimes he inherits the widow.
This is what explains that in marriage, the woman can be plunged into polygamy by a wife-collector husband.
Widowhood automatically transfers her to social oblivion and dehumanization.
That is why some rites are operated such as rites of separation, transition, and integration. In separating the widow from her deceased husband, some DRC traditions stipulate that the woman becomes compelled to grieve and wail openly for several days to mourn her dead husband, and go through degrading rites to complete her separation. Sudden death of her husband most often requires that the woman proves her innocence of his death through an oath-taking, usually by drinking the water washed from the corpse of the deceased. The transition stage involves imposing certain severe restrictions and inhuman observances on the widow.
The last stage of the rites, integration, is marked by ritual cleansing, after which the widow is subjected to a life-threatening condition, in the context of HIV/AIDS, as she goes into a levirate marriage with her brother-in-law. A levirate marriage is a biblical institution whereby a man must marry the widow of his childless brother in order to maintain the brother's line. As chattel to be inherited, she does not own or inherit real property. As a widow, she has no freedom of choice and it is worse if she has no male child because, as such, she could be evicted from her home and dispossessed of her property.
The extent of the persisting predicament of Congolese women can be fathomed from the fact that the DRC judiciary has not yet developed concrete, equitable standards to guide their interpretation in applying the doctrine of repugnancy, and, consequently, much is left to the individual judges who are not favourable, in most cases, to women.
We do not cover all the patterns of discrimination against women, but this just concentrates on the aspect of telling the world how women in this area are discriminated in regards to land property rights. We often discuss nonviolent ways of handling conflicts in homes but we need a solid judiciary system that can boost what we are doing. Again, how communities could address crises or disputes on community level is often overlooked and poorly discussed by local organizations that deal with human rights. Our duty here is to inform national and international human rights agencies to seek strategies for constructive interventions.
COFAPRI considers discrimination against women, the different conflicts women experience and the dynamics behind them, as well as responses to them by the people themselves. We offer a non-violent strategy to achieve this purpose by being close to our members in every situation to explain them the way to behave in case of discrimination and injustice.
Conflicts that arise out of any frustration of human needs cannot be suppressed or merely wished away; we need the help from the authorities that ultimately seeks to resolve them and raising awareness has always been an important guide. In fact, resource-based conflicts should be seen and analyzed within a policy and governance context for better achievement.
The deprivation of any important value induces fear inside the individual – a sense of threat, and unhappiness. Taking into account what gender is, the contending female groups in the DRC often have their needs, interests, values, and access to ‘power’ and resources submerged or violated in favour of satisfying the interests of the men who abuse them via culture.
Such infringement generates competition and social conflicts.
Many localities are experiencing this gendered land conflict as they remain unequal to men, which causes more troubles to women in this part of the world. COFAPRI explores the aspect of such obstacles to women’s full emancipation, equality, and dignity by helping them to get plots of land where they can cultivate and produce crops for their survival, which is a way of addressing women’s land property rights.
Land issues in the DRC cause women's suffering; these cultural and political deliberate policies and structures cause human suffering, death, and harm. This is structural violence towards women that uses beliefs to legitimize and justify discrimination toward women regarding land issues.
Male-dominated tradition and values dictate that real property belongs to husbands, brothers, and fathers and are to be inherited by their sons and not by their daughters. The situation reflects property grabbing by men that is an old tradition in the DRC, but a new form of gender based violence, particularly towards women, which, in other words threatens their security.
The recommendation of COFAPRI is to identify the obsolete cultural values and customs that subjugate women and discriminate against them in the DRC.
Peace cannot exist where some people’s rights and their basic needs are violated. Discriminating against women in terms of land and property rights has restricted their activities and perpetuated their dependence on men.
This situation often leads to poverty of village women.
This means that land problems and women in the DRC is in urgent need of transformation and it deserves to be addressed as it is the main cause of poverty, injustice and inequality. COFAPRI considers this issue of equality regarding land possession as a fundamental principle for the functioning of fair villages, communities and the country. For us, this impels that equality must mean parity or fairness for all people, regardless of immutable and irrelevant personal characteristics.
Again, COFAPRI strongly believes that discrimination against women in general and particularly regarding land ownership violates the principle of equality of women’s rights and respect for their dignity. This is a real hindrance to women’s participation to different sectors of life equal terms with men. When women and their daughters are not allowed to fully participate in political, social, economic and cultural life of their villages, communities and country, they become good for nothing.
This is situation that is imposed to them by some cultural norms although these strongly hamper the full development of women regarding their social life. This is the reason why villages are lagging behind in terms of community development, and so the family makes more difficult the full development of the potentialities of women in the service of their respective villages and communities.
Several non-governmental organizations within and outside the DRC have been more concerned with the problem of unequal land rights as an important mechanism through which female poverty and subordination are sustained and reproduced in different villages of the country. COFAPRI looks at this point in a critical way and finds that since village women cannot inherit property in most parts of the country, this will always mean that they have no way of access to land.
We are totally convinced that the belief of male-dominated tradition and values are the ones that dictate that real property belongs to husbands and fathers, and are to be inherited by their sons and not by their daughters – even if they are the only children a man has got.
Truly speaking, this is economic violence that is imposed to the women of the DRC.
This is also manifested throughout the country. For instance, in towns, women are often limited to access funds, employment and credits, but in villages they will not control their access to healthcare, education, agricultural resources throughout the country, with more attention to remote villages where most of the people are illiterate, women being on the top.
Women are excluded from financial decision making in different sectors, including in their own families. Such discrimination is fostered by traditional laws on inheritance, property rights, and use of land in their society. Furthermore, the DRC engorges various religions and ethnicities that support patterns of discrimination and subjugation of women. These religions preach that man is the head of the family, which gives him more power to him making the woman lag behind him.
All in all, women’s land ownership in the DRC is a big issue. It causes women to remain eternally poor.
Women are the ones who feed their families by cultivating the land. Depriving them of land implies to make them suffer economically and even morally. Village women should be allowed to own land because they feed themselves and their families from what they produce on it; they can sell or use domestically the products.
To achieve this, the government and different organizations on the field should get involved in this issue seriously, by helping to enact and implement laws to allow women to own land and not be discriminated.
As women are the ones who mostly seek food for their families in villages of the DRC, they should be given land to cultivate and the crops can be used for family, community, and national economic support.