As women’s history month comes to a close, we are encouraged to reflect back on the inspirational women of the past. I am writing this blog because I want to focus on the inspirational women of the present, and what we can do as women, as activists, or just as people with compassion– as people who care about human rights.
The American Journal of Public Health reported last May that roughly 1.8 million women were reported to have been raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2007, and about 400,000 had been raped in the last year alone. That’s approximately 1,152 women being raped every day, 48 every hour, four women every five minutes. These numbers are disturbing.
In the wake of Kony 2012 there has been much debate over what positive activism looks like, particularly in this region of central Africa. Personally, I think the very fact that Invisible Children has sparked such a debate is a good thing. This should be an opportunity for us to have a continual dialogue, because there is never a short and easy answer when it comes to activism. It will always be complicated and intimidating; if it’s not, take a step back, because you’re probably doing something wrong.
Kony 2012 debates said a lot of things, but more often than not, positive activism alternatives were left out of these discussions. We can—and should—be mad about the women suffering from rape as a weapon of war in eastern Congo; the question is what do we do?
First, we educate ourselves. We learn some of the details of the complexity of the violence in the area; recognize outside influence and perpetuation of the violence; learn to recognize the Congolese as people; deny neocolonialist, paternalistic rhetoric; recognize the Congolese’s agency in their own struggle; learn about cultural context; and recognize that we, as Western activists coming from relative positions of privilege, don’t have the answer, nor can we impose “our” systems on “them,” nor should we frame the situation as “us” versus “them.” Congolese women are women just like American women; that is a starting point for passion and solidarity, but it doesn’t make our experiences with patriarchy the same.
Congolese women are working on the ground to empower their peers. Chouchou Namegabe gave women a voice by launching a radio talk show for rape survivors in Congo to tell their stories. In a community where Namegabe was harassed in the streets for her revolutionary radio, she gave women a forum to really be heard. Denise Siwatula is one of the few women to have graduated from law school in the Eastern Congo and works with a coalition providing comprehensive services to survivors of sexual violence. In Denise, survivors of sexual violence have found a fierce and steadfast advocate, giving those around her hope for a better future.
From a solidarity-oriented perspective, the goal of Western women who feel compassion and empathy for the women in the Congo should be to help create a space for women like Chouchou and Denise to create their own positive change. The deadliest war in history -the context for the campaign of sexual and gender-based violence in the Congo- is still going on, and it is being funded by all of our electronics; armed groups in the Congo earn $183 million every year by selling four minerals on the international market for use in electronics. Though the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative has been campaigning for 18 months to convince OU to pursue simple, cost-free steps to end our complicity vis-à-vis the electronics we buy and invest in, the Board of Trustees refuses to listen to the unanimous support of Student Senate and Graduate Student Senate and a coalition of student organizations to go conflict-free.
These women in the Congo are making history and those faced with such circumstances are inspirational to us all. This is making history, and so should you.
–Laura Hyde, Women’s Center Volunteer