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Women and Congo: When We Are Together, We Are Strong

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Women and Congo: When We Are Together, We Are Strong

Posted by Katie Smith on July 22, 2013

Women and Congo: When We Are Together, We Are Strong

Congolese human rights activist Neema Namadamu and her fellow Maman Shujaa (‘Hero Women’ in Swahili) work to show the resilience and importance of women in Congo who live in an environment that is violently oppressive to women. Namadamu’s call to influential women around the world helped lead to the appointment of U.N. Special Envoy Mary Robinson and U.S. Special Envoy Russ Feingold. These two major appointments are significant steps towards creating a lasting peace in the Great Lakes region.

On July 11,  Namadamu met Mary Robinson at the Regional Conference on Women, Peace, Security and Development in the Great Lakes region in Bujumbura, Burundi marking a historic turning-point towards the protection of women in eastern Congo. The two leaders discussed the importance of the inclusion and empowerment of women towards achieving sustainable peace in Congo. The need for women to act for women is clear, particularly in the words Namadamu said to the assembly:

“We have a chance. Our special envoy is a powerful woman, and women know how to stand together and support one another. We are ‘for’ one another. We are family. We are community.”

This renewed call for global sisterhood is an extension from the campaign for U.S. Special Envoy Russ Feingold’s appointment. In response to the fall of Goma to M23 rebels in November 2012, Namadamu and the Maman Shujaa said Enough! Enough to living in fear, to worrying about being raped, to losing sons and husbands to war, to the destruction of their homes, and to short-sighted political solutions. Together they initiated a petition on addressed to the women leaders in the White House from the women leaders in Congo.

“Even in remote Congo we have become connected to our global sisterhood. We who are one with the 35 million+ women of the DRC, who are one with the 3.5 billion+ women of the world, are standing for an end to all violence and aggression in Eastern DRC.”

The petition called for women, particularly those in positions of power, to act on behalf of their sisters in Congo by appointing an envoy dedicated to inclusive and comprehensive peace, emphasizing the essential role women play in this process. The petition quickly gained over 108,000 signatures.

Actor and activist, Robin Wright, on behalf of the Maman Shujaa and along with Raise Hope for Congo Campaign Manager JD Stier delivered Neema’s petition to the White House in January 2013. The recognition that electronics she used daily were directly fueling rape and war in Congo inspired Robin Wright to act as a megaphone for the voices of Congolese women. Through interviews and op-eds with the Raise Hope for Congo campaign, tireless support from activists, and the continued dedication of Namadamuand Maman Shujaa, Secretary Kerry appointed U.S. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region,Russ Feingold. Together with U.N. Special Envoy Mary Robinson they can drive change by addressing the drivers of war.

Wartime sexual violence is not specific to Congo. Recent statements by the Japanese government illustrate how global leaders still do not truly appreciate female exploitation in times of war. Empathetic to the grievances of these ‘Comfort Women,’ Namadamu and the Maman Shujaa created a short film expressing their solidarity with women from South Korea. As the petition states, there is a network of women around the world who need to act on each other's behalf, to protect one another from the crimes of sexual violence. The abuse of women creates lingering trauma in communities around the world, and as such they call the international community to recognize sexual violence as a crime against humanity.

Global outreach by women to women and men has helped accomplish the appointments of Russ Feingold and Mary Robinson. Now, Special Envoys Feingold and Robinson can utilize this local and global network of women to help promote democratic governance dedicated to the protection of its citizens, through a comprehensive peace process. By incorporating women like the Maman Shujaa into strategic peacebuilding initiatives, Special Envoys Feingold and Robinson can help promote a peace agenda inclusive to the needs of those marginalized by Congo’s war.   

Photo: Women's rights activists and leaders at the 20th African Union Summit