Before I went to the DR Congo, I knew the eastern part of the country as the rape capital of the world. The armed conflicts of the 1990s and the continued social and political unrest created an atmosphere where sexual violence emerged as a norm. One estimate is that 48 women are raped an hour.
I couldn’t get my mind off of the rape statistics- and who could? But working with a group of university women in the eastern DR Congo, I learned that mass rape is one symptom of an overarching sexual inequality so powerful, persistent and invasive that it is written into the legal and social fabric of the society.
According to the DR Congo Family Code, dowry is a condition for marriage. With dowry, often a woman’s humanity is secondary to money and material items. Some sources estimate that 25,000 women are killed or severely injured globally in conflicts over dowry. Child marriage also persists in the DR Congo. Although the legal marriage age for women is 18, girls can marry at the age of 15 with parental consent. Parental consent translates to the forced marriage of girls before they are able to give their own free, prior and fully informed consent to a decision that impacts every aspect of their lives. According to the UNFPA, in the DR Congo two out of five girls will marry before their 18th birthday.
The Family Code directly states that a wife “may not exercise the role of head of the family.” A married woman needs her husband’s permission to access contraception, get a job and open a bank account. The women I worked with told me stories about sexual harassment in universities and workplaces. When I asked them about contraception, many had not heard of it. Family planning was more familiar, but, as they pointed out, a man’s decision.
A social structure that subordinates and silences half of the population cannot last.
“It’s time,” one student told me, “that we stop believing that we can’t. Because we can.” Young women in the DR Congo are tired of relinquishing their agency and autonomy to the patriarchy. They are starting to organize locally. More and more woman are participating in the controversial group La Lucha, which aims for grassroots social, political and economic change. When women participate in grassroots reform, policy reform reflects their views and not just that of their male counterparts.
Men want change too. Last year, two dozen Congolese men started V-Men which, inspired by V-Day and the mass movement to end violence against women, fights for women’s rights. These men realize that their dignity is impacted when they must give consent for their wives to work. They understand that their humanity suffers when women can’t plan their pregnancies and when children marry. We must come to realize that, regardless of how far away from these problems we live, our humanity is impacted too.
Global outcry can support local change. We can support equality in the DR Congo by showing we are as appalled by the social inequality that permits mass rape as we are by mass rape itself. We can raise our voices along with the voices of the young women and men in the DR Congo. Standing in solidarity means supporting change.