By Sanne Biesmans in DRC
When 24-year-old Mapenda Lenganaiso finished secondary school, she wanted to study Information Technology at university. But her parents thought she should get married instead.
“I insisted for months until my father finally gave in,” she recalls, adding that her elder brother was already in university.
Her experience made her realise that more girls faced a similar situation, motivating her to be more vocal about equal opportunities for men and women.
“I started to advocate for more equality between boys and girls. I wanted to encourage girls to speak out more,” she adds.
Mapenda empowers women and men to become actors of change in the conflict-ridden North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) through her work with a grassroots initiative for women’s rights in Beni – Solidarité des Associations Féminines des Droits de la Femme (Solidarity of Women’s Associations for Women’s Rights or SAFDEF).
“In our tradition, men come before women and they are the decision makers at home and at work,” she explains. “The exposure and experience I acquired fighting for my right to education propelled me to push harder against the barriers and boundaries that promote inequality for girls. But ultimately I fight to promote equal rights for all.”
In eastern DRC, basic rights are not a given, as continued waves of conflict, often committed by armed militia, have caused massive displacement and human rights violations of millions of people. Unequal power relations in accessing resources expose women and girls to risks such as kidnappings, forced marriages, gender-based violence and rape.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is working with different community-based initiatives like SAFDEF to reinforce the human rights situation in communities affected by conflict.
“By building on existing capacities, communities can bring local solutions to local challenges,” says Jackie Keegan, the Head of UNHCR’s sub office in Goma.
Mapenda explains that most families prioritise education for boys, while girls are often expected to stay home and farm, fetch water, search for firewood and cook for the family. This reduces their chances of attending school and succeeding professionally. Sadly, it also affects their capacity to play a crucial role in raising children in a more modern manner, thus perpetuating the cycle of illiteracy, ignorance and poverty, including exposing them to various forms of abuse and violence.
Charmante was only 15 when an armed group attacked her hometown of Oicha in December 2019. Her brother was killed while tending the family farm and a neighbour was decapitated, forcing her family to flee on foot. They found refuge in Mangina town, over 50 kilometres away.
The family still struggles to make ends meet as they have no access to their fields which were their only source of income. Charmante’s father goes out every day to look for odd jobs and she also has to work as a day-labourer in the fields of others to support the family. Missing out on education puts her at a higher risk of sexual exploitation and reduces her future chances of having a stable income and living a decent life.
Thanks to a school grant offered through SAFDEF, she and 74 other girls at risk are going to school and will be able to complete their secondary education.
“I dream of becoming a doctor so that I can save lives and take care of my parents and sister,” she says with a smile.
SAFDEF reinforces positive masculinity and women’s leadership roles in conflict affected areas by training both men and women to stop negative social norms and stereotypes that put women and girls at a socio-economic disadvantage. Last year, the organization helped 31 women and girls who worked as sex workers to leave their harzadous work and enrol in vocational training. Several now work as tailors, hair stylists and beauticians.
Esperance is one of the beneficiaries of the training on female leadership and works at a local grassroots organization that reinforces human rights in Mangina, where thousands of displaced families like Charmante’s live. As the only woman in her team, she used to think it was normal for only men to make decisions.
“After the training, I now realise that my opinions count as well,” she says. “Understanding women’s vulnerabilities makes it easier to address them. The more women are listened to, the more they believe in their leadership roles and capacitiies.”
Antoine Mapendane, 40, recently attended a training on positive masculinity, which taught him healthy behaviours that strengthen equality between men and women.
“I used to make all the decisions but now, my wife and I make decisions together. I even help her with domestic chores, which was unthinkable before,” he says, adding that some men in the community have started to follow his example.
“Changing a community takes time”, Mapenda says. “But if one person learns that men and women are equal, there is hope that the rest of the community will follow.”
The UN Refugee Agency