GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Thousands of women marched through the city center of Goma yesterday in celebration of International Women’s Day. Women turned out in droves, participants explained, because this annual event is the only day of the year when their voices would be heard.
“Whenever we speak out about our concerns and needs throughout the year, no one listens. Today is the only occasion we are being seen and heard,” says a young female carpenter, adding that she hopes the government will respond with a positive message to the march.
A multitude of community groups were represented, from student and religious groups to political parties, and a wide variety of professional associations, from fish and goat traders, mechanics, and restaurant owners, to the military and international NGOs. Each group was dressed in matching, colorful Congolese fabrics, and many brought objects, such as bread, dried fish, shoes, or a goat along to represent their profession. In celebratory mood and chanting, they walked through the normally busy main road of Goma with signs and banners to reach a podium where government, diplomatic, and United Nations representatives offered words of solidarity.
The women Enough interviewed were all motivated by a common goal: to make the voices of women heard and to help change their life, status, and position in Congolese society. While Congo’s constitution establishes the principle of equality between men and women, some provisions of Congolese law and traditions still discriminate against women. The Congolese Labor Code, for example, requires women to have a permission by their husbands to perform salaried work and public services; women are paid about 60 percent of what men make. Married women also need the authorization of their husbands to sign legal documents. “Men see women as inferior; they don't think we can do the same work,” complains 35-year-old Masamba who came to the celebration with her bible group. A 20-year old football player similarly affirms that women are capable not only of playing football like men, but also of holding higher-level positions that are currently dominated by men.
In interviews with participants at the event, women regularly mention the security situation as an impediment to the development of the region and the empowerment of women. Conflict in eastern Congo is endemic and violence against women a constant threat. “We get harassed, pillaged, and raped on our way to Rutshuru [a territory north of Goma] where we buy goats for the market in Goma,” laments 40-year-old Furaha. Claudine, a student originally from mineral-rich and conflict-torn Walikale, a territory to the west of Goma, said she came to represent all women in her territory who live with the fear and reality of violence every day.
When asked what reforms are needed to improve the lives of women in Congo, the female administrative manager of an airline company suggested that the priority should be reform of the educational system, to address a root cause of Congo’s woes. “We have to make people understand that women and men are equal and that women can lead as well,” she said.
Fidel Bafilemba contributed to this post.