The world is witnessing the latest chapter in the volatile history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where extreme violence and instability have characterized the eastern region of the country. Since 1998, over 5.4 million deaths are attributed to the continuous violence and resulting humanitarian crisis; today, over 1.7 million people are internally displaced. 71% of the population lives on less than $1 per day, often lacking access to basic services and food.
Women are often the canary in the coal mine of modern warfare. In the DRC and across the globe, war and conflict disproportionately impact women. Rape and other types of sexual and gender-based violence have been used as tools of war for years, affecting hundreds of thousands of women physically and psychologically. Recent estimates suggest four women are raped every five minutes in the DRC, with the total number of women who have survived rape reaching into the millions. Nothing has changed in this current round of fighting.
Beyond the systemic violence, women survivors of war in the DRC are among the most marginalized, often facing extreme poverty and very limited access to education and healthcare. Early marriages, limiting cultural norms concerning the role of women, and general instability compound the threats to women, destroying families and communities.
Women for Women International's (WfWI) DRC program targets the most vulnerable, and has served over 58,000 women since 2004. Of women who participated in our program last year, only 31% attended primary school, while just 15% attended secondary school. Only 40% of the women were literate. Our work provides women - who have little hope or opportunity - the chance to participate in the economy, stand up for their rights, and make informed decisions about their personal health and safety and that of their families.
Amidst the heavy military presence now in Kalehe, every day is a struggle for survival. A group of WfWI program graduates in the area have reported that the issue of security is paramount. These women had formed a collective called Nyanguka (Swahili for "raise up") to make and sell soap to local shops, with each member contributing capital to purchase ingredients required for production. Customers have been so satisfied with their product that they have taken to waiting outside Nyanguka's production site as soap is being made.
The group earns an average of $178 per week and uses their income to pay for their children's school fees, clothing, and other family necessities. Members of Nyanguka have diversified their business beyond soap-making to include raising poultry and goats and bee-keeping. Due to its success, the group has expanded and now includes eight group members' husbands, who have gradually changed their perceptions of women as they witnessed and benefited from their wives' education and training.
"The arrival of WfWI changed our lives," notes one group member. "Women were not considered, and some local sayings clearly expressed that a baby boy is worth more than a woman. All a woman could do was just household activities like fetching water, chopping wood, and cooking food, apart from working in the field, and giving birth."
The latest wave of violence now threatens the small economic and social gains that these women have been able to make. They have been forced to suspend their work until the fighting stops, and they have experienced looting by soldiers fleeing the hostilities. There are thousands of other women in the DRC suffering the same fate caused by decreased security. Their families and communities, even the very fabric of DRC society, are at risk.
With relatively little investment, support for gender equality, and, perhaps most importantly, political will, it is possible to achieve greater financial stability and enhanced health and wellness for women and children, as well as remarkable decreases in domestic and sexual violence. The country cannot afford yet another setback; neither can the rest of the world.
American women should not abandon their sisters in Congo. Go to www.womenforwomen.org to find out how you can help.