Bahati Valérie - Venturing to DR Congo's Remote War Zones
Jennifer Timmons talks to a remarkable women who dedicates her life to helping women and children in war-torn DR Congo
"The area in which most of our members live is a war zone. The fighters live there as they dig minerals that are used to nurture more violence in the country... Reaching out to the women in remote villages is not an easy task."
Bahati Valérie and her husband Mugisho established Congolese Female Action for Promoting Rights and Development (COFAPRI) in Bukavu in the eastern Congo in November 2009.
Based in Kigali, Rwanda, they travel – often separately, across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and specifically, into remote, rural villages, to meet the women they help. This involves a great deal of planning ahead: contacting COFAPRI members about security conditions before leaving, having the proper official government papers in hand stating who they are, and then having to deal with corrupt border personnel who harass them with bribery – just to cross into or leave country borders.
Despite the ever-present dangers, Bahati and Mugisho are determined to reach out to the women in South Kivu, where the COFAPRI operates, and continue to make periodic trips across the border.
Growing up in DR Congo
“The boy is prepared to become a respected man, and the girl to become a submissive woman.”
Please tell me about yourself; for example, your family, where you grew up, childhood aspirations, and your observations of the society in which you grew up?
I am from the city of Bukavu in DR Congo.
I was born into a family of six children, three boys and three girls; I am the oldest of all. I am a mother of two children: a daughter and a son, respectively 5 and 1.
In my childhood, I always dreamt to see women and girls enjoy their rights and live a harmonious and violence-free environment in their homes and in society. I was lucky to have lived in a family where we were not discriminated against – as per education, but my neighbors were extremely inequitable.
The society in which I grew up is highly patriarchal and discriminatory toward women and girls. Women and girls are often deprived of their rights, even the fundamental ones. Most girls and women are not allowed to go to school – and those who try, are refused by their husbands to seek jobs outside their homes.
In this area, a woman is not totally free to decide on her own; she always seeks permission from her husband, but the opposite is not true. Today, very few women are forceful about wanting to work outside the home, but this often leads to high domestic contentions and sometimes separation follows.
Divorce is not common in DR Congo – and not even allowed because society states that domestic problems are purely issues of the husband and wife, and no one else can mingle with them. This means that even the justice system will not get involved in domestic issues between husbands and wives. In case the situation becomes very serious, this justice will always be unfair: the husband will be given reason, and the wife will be told to go and see how to harmonize their situation.
In the DRC villages, the situation is worse. Men make and protect the discriminatory laws.
Boys are given more chances to attend school compared to girls. The reason for this is that elders (who are uniquely men) say educating girls is a loss of money and time, but it is a gain for the boys. They reason that when a girl gets married, she will be more productive for her husband’s family than her own parents’. She gets married and so creates a gap in her family of origin, but the boy will compensate that gap when he marries. The boy also works to feed his own family and supports his parents, brothers and sisters.
The other reason is that even family education is segregatory; the way a boy is educated differs from the one the girl is educated. The girl is more in the kitchen, but the boy has more time to play, to visit friends, etc.
Not sending girls to school is also supported by the unfounded belief that girls perform less than boys at school. This is true only because boys have a lot of time to revise their lessons whereas as girls stay in the kitchen cooking, they have no time at all for revising their course notes.
Although these arguments are not really convincing, they are strongly applied in the DRC society.
These arguments show how violence toward women is reinforced: the different wars that the country has known came to cement violence as women and girls are objectified by being massively and repeatedly raped, sometimes in the eyes of family members, husbands, and friends. Many more were also mutilated; this leads to females' humiliation.
Serving Village Women and Girls
What personally inspired yourself and your husband Mugisho to establish COFAPRI?
My husband Mugisho and I had always dreamt to assist women in need; even when we were still fiancés, we used to talk about this important issue.
Not only this, but we were also inspired to establish COFAPRI by discussing issues of women’s discrimination at home in DR Congo. Our dream is to see women around us become well-treated in their communities and families. Then, by becoming Safe World for Women volunteers – that was in 2009, we got more inspiration towards women issues.
In addition, as my husband had already started to study for master’s programme in Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies, we felt the need to apply the notions of peace in our area in order to help women and girls.
Does the work you do put yourself in danger?
For sure, it puts us in danger. The area in which most of our members live is a war zone.
The fighters live there as they dig minerals that are used to nurture more violence in the country.
Roads in this region are almost nonexistent. This means that sometimes, when walking to reach out our members, people may meet those fighters and harass them. Currently, we live in Rwanda where the Interahamwe, i.e. the people who committed the 1994 genocide, originate from.
When we cross the border to get into the DRC, customs officers never allow us to enter easily and this is what they do to all Congolese who live in Rwanda: they often take our cameras or other important things with us, telling us when we come back we’ll get them. This is a way of asking for money – and if you fail to give, your objects are taken forever.
They accuse those of us who live in Rwanda that we “have sold the country” and that we should not be staying there, but in our country; yet, there are no paying jobs there and besides, insecurity abounds.
Even mamy men in these remote villages areas hate us as they say we are causing rebellion in their wives and daughters as we tell them about women’s rights.
In view of this danger, how is COFAPRI reaching out to the women of the DRC?
Reaching out to the women in remote villages is not an easy task.
This requires us to walk long distances on foot to reach the different areas in which our members live.
I personally go across border from Rwanda to reach out the women we serve. I meet them in their villages, sit and work with them in order to show them we are close to them. Keeping distance from them and not sharing their daily activities would be contradictory to our beliefs. My husband and I are sure that in meeting these women at their homes and in their villages, and working with them, is a good motivation for them.
Roads in the area where our members are based are almost nonexistent. This makes us face lots of risks on the way as villages are mostly occupied by fighters.
Our coordinators in different villages often meet once a month to discuss the pertinent issues concerning sensitization and other problems.
Are there other organisations which currently exist which are like COFAPRI?
In fact in Bukavu, the capital city of South Kivu, there are many organizations like COFAPRI.
They are based in the city, but we are based in remote villages.
This makes the difference between us and other organisations. We focus on village women and girls because they are the members of our population who are the most neglected, uninformed, and deprived of their rights, compared to those who are in the city.
The other difference is that we address simultaneously both domestic and war violence as both cause shame, ridicule, and hinder women’s rights, and because war violence has direct impact on families’ life.
Second-class Citizens and Deeply-rooted Traditions
How do you view the status of women in the DRC?
Women are traditionally seen as second-class citizens in the DRC. In Congolese society, there exists an old set of rules called the Family Code that subordinates women by requiring them to obey the husband who is the recognized head of the household.
While the family code has been abolished and replaced by equalizing reformed family codes, this tradition is deeply rooted, and the status of women remains subordinate to men.
The old code dictates that a woman must live wherever her husband chooses to live and that she requires her husband’s authority to bring a case to court, which seems ironic in COFAPRI’s understanding. Furthermore, the management of wealth is to be entrusted to the husband. The fact that women have been relegated to lower status in society does not necessarily imply lesser importance. This, in fact, could instead be an attempt to protect women because of their reproductive importance to the community.
A virgin-whore dichotomy is created, such that society holds virgins in the highest regard and tries to protect them. If a woman is defiled, she is seen as a whore and worthless, even a castaway in some areas, which is not the case for men.
Additionally, men want women to have large families, especially in rural areas, thus limiting them to have options for independence from her husband.
This inequality extends to all facets of daily life, including the opportunities for girls to get an education because educating boys is considered more important, and thus a higher percentage of boys attend school than girls in the DRC. This enduring cultural norm is known by the perpetrators of gender-based violence (GBV) and is specifically used to destroy the society psychosocially by targeting its most protected members, who are women.
This situation has been more awful with the advent of wars.
War fighters have used rape as a weapon of war that truly brings shame to society via women’s rape.
Do you see this changing in your lifetime?
We are sure every beginning comes to an end, sooner or later. We hope this can still change, since nothing is impossible. People have to understand why change is needed; this is why COFAPRI is continuously raising awareness about DRC women’s unbearable plights.
The grassroots – together with leaders, can change this.
The former can go on talking about this harassing issue untirelessly and without fear; so break silence over rape and GBV in general, and the leaders should have the good will of eradicating it.
We all together can change this situation; that is why COFAPRI is committed to bringing light where there is darkness.
It is a long battle with lots of risks, but the future will be bright. We have to sacrifice something so that women future’s generations can know how hard we fought for their safety, to get a world with less violence towards them. If this infringing situation can’t change in our lifetime, at least we are sure we will have left a good foundation to coming generations; it's up to them to continue from where we will have stopped.
Education, Cultivation, and Empowerment
Who are the women who have benefited from COFAPRI? Where do they come from, and what are their backgrounds?
The women who have benefited so far are the ones from areas of South Kivu, namely Nyangezi, Mudaka, Bukavu, and Kavumu. These areas are made of villages in which we are currently working.
Many of these women and girls have experienced domestic violence or the results of war violence, such as living with HIV that they got from rape.
Others have children they can’t afford to send to school because they don't have the funds for school fees.
Can you share some COFAPRI success stories?
COFAPRI has many success stories. We started our activities in 2009 when we joined Safe World For Women as volunteers.
We have been gathering women from different villages to tell them about their rights. In these meetings, women happen to know one another and learn a lot of things.
Besides, we teach them how to settle home contentions non-violently because in villages, women are said to be the origin of their husbands’ aggression.
So far, we have organised these women in different groups and each was given a pig. Once it produces, the piglets are shared among the team members until everyone gets one. We are doing the same with rabbits and chickens. Once the pig or rabbits are sold, members get money to pay fees for their children or they can eat pork or rabbit, which they rarely ate before due to lack of money.
We also have three bee hives; honey can also be helpful in the same context as above.
COFAPRI also involves women in cultivation.
Each village has a piece of land on which they collectively work. They cultivate, sow, and harvest jointly. After their activities, they sit somewhere and discuss different points related to their daily experience. This makes them learn from others, so they learn a lot.
Women are also being shown how to make a small garden around their home in order to easily get some vegetables like cabbage, carrots, onions, etc This is often done on a small piece of land.
What is more encouraging is that these members always encourage us in our initiatives in helping them.
What is your organisation doing to help children?
So far, we are supporting four young girls who are at primary school.
We are paying for their school fees and educational materials and they are excelling well.
With income from animal farming, we hope to generate more funds to assist more girls. The boys are breeding pigs and rabbits with the aim of making a big farm. We also talk to them about human rights and the evils of domestic abuse.
We do not hesitate to motivate girls and boys to attend school because education is key to development.
Needs and Challenges
What is lacking and needs urgent attention? For example, a project you would like to begin, but for which you do not have enough resources or manpower?
We have many urgent projects to implement, but many of them are still waiting due to lack of funding or materials particularly. We would like to carry out different activities such as a sewing, pot and bricks moulding, art craft, teaching computer skills for the youth, reading, writing, and calculation for old people, opening small shops for women, paying school fees for all girls in COFAPRI, etc.
I am personally being trained in sewing so that when I’ll have gained some skills, I can go and teach members of COFAPRI.
Employing someone to train them will be costly for us, yet we do not have financial means to withstand this cost. I will also train two or three who can in their turn, train others.
Are there stumbling blocks in your plans?
Among many reasons, we need true democracy in the country. In fact, in case the wars continue in this part of DR Congo, COFAPRI may fail to implement all its activities. This may also hinder full development, country-wide.
To achieve our plans in a good and positive way, we need true democracy.
A democracy built on gender equality, freedom, and a country free of violence due to war. The political leaders must understand that without peace and with gender discrimination, no development at all can be achieved. So, we ask them to give us enough and durable peace, and we will get involved in sustainable development activities and combat wholeheartedly all forms of violence.
The injustice that is rampant in the DRC should also be addressed. For instance, rapists and women abusers must face fair justice and be seriously sanctioned. Corruption must also be eradicated in order to allow anyone who wishes to help the country develop positively.
Facing Corruption - 'Beans of Children'
Have you experienced personal tragedy yourself?
Personally, I have never experienced family discrimination or rape, but many of my relatives and friends suffer either domestic or war violence – including rape and others. As stated above, I was fortunate as my father is someone who understands the evils of family discrimination.
Recently, however, I went to the DRC to meet COFAPRI women, and faced aggression at the border of DRC and Rwanda (called Poste douanier Rusizi 1) when I was robbed of my camera and my phone by an immigration officer. Luckily, I had some of my photos on a memory stick.
Border officers told me that I should pay US $50 in order to get into Bukavu, my home city, though I had legal papers for travelling.
I was told that they never consider any document issued in Rwanda by the DRC embassy.
What was more hurtful and discriminatory was that, because I traveled with my two kids, they told me that the kids are not mine – and if they are, I had to show a letter written by my husband, confirming I was allowed to take the kids with me.
We wonder if living in Rwanda is a problem; we did not choose voluntarily to go to Rwanda, and fled from DR Congo [due to conflicts] and had to go in search of work. Back in South Kivu, there are raped women and girls and women who are victims of domestic violence; so this job we have in Rwanda empowers us to be able to help, as well as to feed our own family.
We understand they might be checking child trafficking, but does this concern babies who are still being breastfed? Is this really the way border officers should talk to me because I am a woman? These border personnel have embezzled many people, nationals, and foreigners.
This kind of corruption in the DRC has become the rule of thumb, the beliefs of the people, because they rarely get their monthly salaries. In every office you may enter, they ask you '”Madesu ya bana, kitu cha kunywa?” – respectively, beans of children and something to drink?
“Beans of children” is what Congolese say to mean you give them something as corruption.
Give them something to buy beans, so that their children can get something to eat that day. Corruption in the DRC is given different names. People asking for it do not openly refert to it as corruption; so they give it various names like the ones I gave. Every Congolese, without exception, is aware of those names.
International Community and DR Congo
In your opinion, how could the international community help out more in the DRC regarding the human rights of women and children?
The international community could help the DRC regarding human rights of women and children by pushing the leaders to apply true democracy.
They can pressure DRC leaders to completely end the wars that have become a good business for warlords and other people. The wars a Calvary [an experience causing intense suffering] for women and girls in particular. Minerals from DRC are being sold outside the country for nurturing wars.
These wars have caused many women to become HIV-positive, get raped, and mutilated.
Children become orphans, and others enroll with combatants and so they can’t go to school anymore. Many more become street children and become a threat for national security by becoming involved in criminal activities like banditry, and thus causing social unrest.
If the international community can help put a total ban on selling these minerals, wars would stop and this would be very helpful for women and children.
On the side of justice, the community should help the DRC to prosecute fairly all people involved in rapes – including local leaders and MONUSCO (United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) staffs.
Can you request for help from overseas aid agencies, foreign embassies etc and have you approached any?
Yes, we can request help from aid agencies, to see if they can help us with financial and moral support in order to implement our projects effectively.
We are in touch with some, with whom we simply exchange ideas on some points. We would like to be in touch with more, as we can still learn a lot of things from them based on their experience.
We have often tried to contact different countries, but unsuccessfully. We think this is due to the situation of the DRC.
No one would want to make a social investment in a war-torn country if it is not their own country.
COFAPRI is highly motivated to make change in lives of women who were raped during wars and those whose rights are infringed in the home. So this requires every possible effort.
How do you see the future of COFAPRI?
The future of COFAPRI will be great and bright.
For the time being, it is promising and very motivating as we are getting more and more members from day to day. We have made a big step compared to how we started.
Our commitment, dreams, and efforts will never fade; we will bring light where there is darkness.
When this light comes, we will celebrate and sing victory on the mountain.
The DRC: Exploited and War-ravaged
Today the DRC remains one of most dangerous countries in the world.
The DRC, named as the second-worst place in the world to be a woman – after Afghanistan, by Thomson Reuters Foundation, faces continued conflict.
“Recklessness, lawlessness, and impunity” is not an uncommon way to describe the socio-political state of affairs in the country. These words describe a nation plagued by decades of conflict, power-struggles, and a crippled economy. While the country is tremendously rich in natural resources – diamonds, copper, and crude oil among its main exports – paradoxically, it is also one of the world’s poorest nations with over 80% of the population living in dire poverty.
The country has an estimated population of around 71 million and possesses land roughly the size of Western Europe; yet the history of the DRC is particularly menaced by its history, contributing to its present instability. It suffered greatly in the hands of Arab slave traders in centuries past, and in the late 19th century into the early part of the 20th century, natives were subjected to severe exploitation under King Leopold II of Belgium, who brutalized the local population to produce rubber – for which the spread of automobiles and development of rubber tires created a growing international market. As a matter of policy, the king's army, the Force Publique (FP) was called in to enforce rubber quotas by cutting off the limbs of natives was widespread practice and a matter of policy. Between 1885–1908, millions of Congolese died as a consequence of exploitation and disease.
Since its independence in 1960, the DRC has experienced several episodes of civil wars, a brutal 30-year dictatorship under Joseph Mobutu, and other military conflicts initiated and/or supported by foreign powers and multi-national mining companies.
The conflict which ravaged the county between 1996 and 2003 has been called “Africa’s World War’” and plunged the DRC into a series of proxy wars and pitted tribal militias against one another, subsequently exacerbated by its own government corruption. Over 5.4 million Congolese perished in the conflict and 1.7 million were displaced.
Bringing peace to the region has been a protracted process which has seen the UN and foreign powers struggling with negotiations to intervene. Amid the unrelenting conflict, aid agencies, and groups such as COFAPRI endeavour to come to the aid of those most vulnerable: women and children.
Women in the DRC
The DRC has frequently been described as one of the most dangerous places for women on earth.
Revenue from Congo's minerals bankrolls atrocities and conflict, and militias often use mass rape as a deliberate strategy to intimidate and control communities as they profit from the illicit trade in Congo's conflict minerals – coltan, tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold, according to numerous news sources, policy institutes, and NGOs. Many of these “conflict minerals” end up in electronic devices such as cell phones, laptops, and digital camers.
In 2008, Major General Patrick Cammaert, former UN Deputy Force Commander remarked, "It is more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier right now." He was referring to the brutality and sexual violence suffered by women in the Eastern areas, vulnerable in the conflict over its existing mineral wealth.
Four years on, this situation appears to have scarcely changed, and women are still victims of brutality, rape, and murder. The conflict coupled with the patriarchal nature of society makes women in the DRC ever more vulnerable to a wide range of sexual violence and social injustices.