It is my last morning in Kinshasa. It’s early winter 2016 and already it is sweltering. On the way to the office, I walk slower than usual. I want to notice everything, engrave into my memory every detail of this neighborhood: the young kids playing football in the middle of the street; the familiar smile of the old woman selling fragrant beignets; the group of men lively discussing in Lingala under the trees…. Dirty sand is stuck between my toes, the sun burns my skin and the delicious scent of the street food makes me hungry.
I arrive at work to see my colleagues one last time before leaving. We talk about everything and nothing. When it’s time to head for the airport, I look at my co-workers with some trepidation. “See you soon,” I tell them. But they had all already warned me. This is not a goodbye, they say. I will be back in DRC for sure!
Based on previous internship experiences – writing about human trafficking and working with Physicians for Human Rights – I had become acutely aware of the issue of sexual violence in conflict zones. But I felt that my involvement with this sort of work was not legitimate unless I had some form of first-hand exposure. I felt that I needed to encounter the people affected by this crisis; to meet the victims of sexual violence in order to better understand why such horrors happen and how such destructive attitudes take root.
Thanks to Julienne Lusenge, a fervent Congolese activist, I was offered the possibility of spending three months in the DRC to work with the Fonds pour les Femmes Congolaises (Fund for Congolese Women or FFC) an NGO providing financial and technical resources to women-led grassroots initiatives. I was grateful for the opportunity, excited to discover a new country, and ready to challenge my preconceived ideas.
Particularly important was the chance to learn more about the DRC, which, since independence from Belgium in1960, has been caught up in a complex series of wars characterized by the large-scale displacement of hapless men, women, and children. The “second Congo war” (1998-2002) was an especially bloody conflict that involved at least seven African countries and countless rebel groups. Connected to the Rwandan genocide, this multi-dimensional conflict further weakened the country with current clashes still the result of past fighting. This despite the official “end” to the war in 2002 following the intervention of the United Nations Stabilization Mission to the DRC (MONUSCO) and various bilateral agreements.
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It is early November 2015. I have just landed in Kinshasa, the DRC’s sprawling capital of more than 10 million people. After the total disorientation of the first few days, I begin to adapt. I become accustomed to permanent chaos, crowded streets, the endless traffic jams, the incessant horns, the stifling heat….
As I get used to my new environment, I quickly find my place at the FFC. My colleagues are very friendly and I feel proud to be part of the team. I mainly work with the communication department, helping to fine-tune their social media accounts and increase the FCC’s visibility by organizing events in the city. I also help them with everyday tasks: translating documents, meeting potential donors, editing project proposals, and writing reports. My co-workers are always helpful and in return I can assist in many different areas.
By late November I have learned a great deal. This internship is unlike the previous ones. The challenges are extremely different. Every day, I go to the office where I confront the realities of the field: the difficulty of working in the dark during power outages, the frustration of an extremely slow internet connection, the serious lack of funding for projects. The sort of problems that so many NGOs have to endure.
Despite the everyday burdens of dealing with a harsh reality, the FFC team steps up to what needs to be done. They are hardworking and determined, and the results are evident. Since its creation in 2007, FFC has funded close to 200 projects throughout the country. It has supported initiatives aimed at eliminating violence against women, setting up empowerment programmes and educating women about HIV/AIDS and reproductive health and so much more. What is fascinating about the FFC is that it is a truly grassroots women’s rights movement having been started in the DRC – the result of a few women putting their force and efforts together to create a proximity fund to answer the real needs of the population. Their rationale is based on the belief that grassroots initiatives drive change and that Congolese women have the potential to provide effective solutions to sustain these advances.
All this has helped me gain a completely new perspective of human rights in the field. It has also offered me a more pragmatic vision of how NGOs work. For any project to be effective, I now believe, it is crucial to completely integrate the beneficiary population in every stage. To reach durable human rights advances, we need to use a bottom-up approach with an emphasis on local decisionmaking, community participation, and the creation of a truly grassroots movement.
Just before finishing the internship, I travel to Bunia, a small town in the eastern part of the country, to work with a partner NGO: SOFEPADI. As a local association, SOFEPADI’s mission is to protect women’s rights and to provide support for survivors of sexual violence by advocating for justice. It also runs a medical clinic for victims of sexual violence. Once there, I speak with passionate people, deeply committed to the protection of such survivors. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, psychologists, social workers and lawyers work together to give them the best possible support. In fact, the centre is unique because it provides a holistic response by combining medical care, psycho-social help, legal aid and socioeconomic reintegration. In the days that follow, I meet beneficiaries of SOFEPADI’s support and collect their testimonies. I am rendered speechless by their courage and strength.
Most of these women have become real actors of change based on their victim experience and are actively fighting against sexual violence. They want to help those in similar situations by testifying and explaining how they have managed to get by with SOFEPADI’s help. One of these women confides to me: “This tragic event has awakened something in me. The pain and anger I felt after the assault gave me the strength to fight. I have a duty to help others and to do everything to stop these horrors.”
The trip east is a beautiful way to conclude my short, but intense experience in the DRC, and I have become emotionally attached to this country. My mind is full of indelible memories and I am awed by the kindness of the Congolese people and the courage and fervour of these women who work so fiercely to change their country. I have been so fortunate to learn from them and I will always be thankful for this precious time spent by their side.
Emilie Linder lives and works in Geneva.