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28 February 2012

Women, the elections and peace in the DR Congo

Times are particularly harsh once again in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In this country elections do not constitute a moment of hope for democracy and change but rather signify a moment of terror and impunity, often leading to disastrous consequences – and this especially for women. Human Rights Watch reported 24 dead and about 100 seriously wounded civilians in the DRC in the two weeks that followed the elections which were held at the end of November 2011. Immaculée Birhaheka, a women’s rights activist and director of a Congolese women’s non-governmental organisation called PAIF (Promotion et Appui aux Initiatives Féminines), reported that most of those victims were women.

Women are often the main targets when violence breaks out, due to the legal, economic and physical power inequalities between men and women – inequalities which are common in most countries of the world. Violence against women is one social mechanism and expression of this patriarchal system built on male supremacy and female subordination. PAIF has been one of medica mondiale’s partner organisations in the DRC since 2004. It was active supporting women’s political participation in the presidential and legislative elections which were held on November 28, 2011.

Elections and violence against women

There were several factors leading to the failure of this election. Mismanagement and bad organisation of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) led to missing ballot papers, false electoral registers and even missing polling stations in some places. Frauds were widespread, with Joseph Kabila, the former president, winning in some electoral districts, such as Malemba-Nkulu in the province of Katanga, with a voter participation of 100 per cent and a vote in his favour of 100 per cent : the result does not seem quite realistic. The chaos that resulted from the country’s second – so-called democratic – multiparty post-war election hence came along with a general frustration of the population, as most people perceived the elections as being manipulated. This perception has been confirmed by neutral observer missions, such as the Carter Centre’s.  The INEC was said to be biased and pro-Kabila. The frustration about the frauds led to an eruption of violence. The result was a period of even greater violence and impunity than usual for the DRC. This deteriorated the security situation for women – a situation which is never without dangers but which can always get worse in times of elections.

Despite all the dangers, Birhaheka was very active in advocating Eastern Congolese women’s political participation in the election while at the same time being worried about those women’s personal security. Even after the official end of the war in the DRC in 2003, widespread sexualised violence has not ceased in the Kivu provinces in Eastern DRC and the fear of marauding militia and the army is ubiquitous. Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in the DRC is endemic. According to a report from the American Journal of Public Health in June 2011, 1152 women are estimated to be raped in the DRC every day.  The DRC hence constitutes the second most dangerous country for women in the world, following Afghanistan. 

The reasons for the DRC's horrific situation today are partly linked to its history. The country’s legacy is a rather sombre succession of inhuman exploitation, dictatorships and mass terror – starting with Leopold II of Belgium’s personally owned slave state and continuing as a Belgian colony. Those dark times of colonialism were followed by Mobutu Sese Seko’s terror, in times when the country was still named Zaire, and then the recent – officially finished – war (1998 - 2003) which is referred to as Africa’s World War.  About 5.4 million people were killed  in this man-made humanitarian disaster. The DRC today is a country where extreme wealth in natural resources comes together with extreme poverty and lack of prospects for the great majority. It is a failed state , ranked last in the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme in 2011.