Lest We Forget The Women of DRCongo
At a time when the dire situation endured by DRCong’s women has all but disappeared from the news headlines, Lisa Shannon, author of A Thousand Sisters, a book that documents her journeys to the country, aptly reminds the world that they cannot afford to forget or ignore the plight of Congolese women.
Lisa Shannon: The Congolese people have been dismissed largely by the international community. In many ways, it’s almost sub-human to think that somehow, it feels different for a woman in the Congo to be gang-raped to have your whole family burned alive. Yet, that’s where we operate from, the idea that Africa is a pity of despair and this kind of violence is almost inherent. It’s important that we talk about Congolese women as complete human beings who had a full life prior to this violence. There’s nothing about this violence that is baseline for them. They are shocked, horrified and hurt about what is happening.
Belinda: What compelled you to do what you do for DRCongo women?
Lisa Shannon: The first time I head of their plight was through the Oprah Winfrey show on TV. I was shocked that we were looking at the deadliest war since WW II and that millions of people dead and I had never even heard of it. There was a woman’s story I read in O magazine and how she was being dragged away to the forest. While begging for her life, she was told, ‘even if we killed you, what would it matter? You are like an animal and you wouldn’t be missed.’ In a lot of ways, the international community has echoed that. When that many people die and no one is talking or doing anything about it, we are sending a very powerful message that we don’t think these people are human. I felt that if I didn’t do anything even though I had no idea where to start, I would be joining that message.
Belinda: In your book, A Thousand Sisters, You talk about the stare in the eyes of the women a few times in your book. What instantly registers with you when you see that look in their eyes?
Lisa Shannon: At first, you look at it and it’s this sort of glazed over numb look but when you look closer, there is a lot of desperation behind it and a sort of clinging to whatever shrewd of dignity and humanity they have left and there’s a sense of hanging by a thread.
Belinda: Is the international community making excuses for the lack of action on this matter?
Lisa Shannon: The Congo is a textbook case of the world making excuses. Women for Women International just did a survey of women on the ground and found that more than half of the Congolese women believe there could be peace in their country if the international will existed. There is an undying hope, which is reliant on us showing up and taking full responsibility for the role that we play. Our consumer electronics basically makes our entire economy and lifestyle what it is, and that’s dependent on the kind of suffering that is taking place in the Congo. You have to ask questions about how much of our lives, is dependant on cheap coltan from the Congo? So, like it or not, we have been funding this. Yet, we are giving all kinds of excuses about how it has nothing to do with us and the problems are impossible to solve.
Belinda: Are people more aware of the atrocities in the Congo or are we still as ignorant as we were about the nature of the conflict?
Lisa Shannon: People are more aware. When I started in 2005, the activist field was blank and no one knew about the Congo but now it’s in the news a little bit more, not a ton but a little bit more and there’s a movement and that’s testament to the fact that when people hear, they care and want to get involved. So that makes me feel hopeful.
Belinda: You write about being shocked after discovering a map which details areas occupied by militias. If the Congolese government and the international community made up their mind today, that it was time to get rid of the militias, is it doable?
Lisa Shannon: It’s absolutely doable and it’s doable through diplomacy. I don’t think military intervention is required. I think DDR – Disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programmes could be very effective. Using diplomatic pressure and the structure of the international Criminal Court or the US, Europe and African nation’s justice system to go after criminals who live in these regions and choke off the leadership of the militias would go a long way.
Belinda: The blame game is endless but who are the parties that should be talking to each other about bringing an end to this war?
Lisa Shannon: There is no shortage of blame to go around. If we are going to start solving this problem, we need to have intellectual integrity about the way we approach it, which means being honest that it is complex and many players have played key roles. That will be a place to start. As for talks, I think donor governments, the UN, Rwanda, Uganda Congo and Burundi.
Belinda: In 2010, over 300 women were raped in Luwungi village, despite a UN base being nearby, is there a lack of political will to stop this atrocity?
Lisa Shannon: With the UN, it’s very tricky because there isn’t a lot of interaction between the UN and the Congolese people. I said recently and I stand by it, there are questions as to whether or not the UN may have driven through those towns when the rapes were happening. But what Congolese woman is going to run up to an armed foreign man and tell him she was just raped, especially if they don’t even get out of the car. So, I think the UN needs to play a more active role in protecting people.
Lisa Shannon: Ending impunity. There has to be punishment for bad behaviour and that hasn’t been the case. A justice system, there has to be repercussions when people rape. Education is important and Women for Women International has launched a men’s education programme in the Congo. The security sector needs to be reformed, that’s where some of the key solution for Congo lies and supporting the Congolese government in building their own systems, from provincial governments to central governments.
Belinda: Is the world media and journalists alike telling the right stories about the Congo?
Lisa Shannon: To begin, I have had conversations with people who worked at the Associated Press, London office and make decisions about what international stories they will cover and put out over the wire. I know a conscious decision was made not to cover the Congo. I was told they had discussions about this and it was widely understood that Congo was synonymous with ‘African conflicts.’ The reason they gave was that Americans don’t have room in their psyche for more than one international conflict. I find that offensive and untrue. In a lot of ways, the media has made decisions about what they think we will and won’t care about. So, I’m grateful for any media that covers the Congo and gives us credit as human beings that we are compassionate people. However, I do see more improvement today than there was five years ago. There are journalists who really care and have a deep commitment to the Congo and want to tell the story and looking for ways to cover the conflict in a way that connects it to us and so people feel connected.
Belinda: How has all of this changed your life?
Lisa Shannon: When you are on a journey to do what you can, you are going to have moments that feel overwhelming and moments when it feels like you haven’t made that much of a difference and times when you question yourself if you will make mistakes. I really feel that I have gained a much deeper sense of joy from knowing Congolese women. They have dignified me because I may have had a quote-on-quote, good life before this but it was empty. From Congolese women I have learnt what it means to be connected to other human beings and operate on a real value system which is something that I think most of the women I know have had all along. I don’t know many Congolese women who are living for the next iPod or Rolex watch. I know a lot of Congolese women who are focused on talking care of their kids, communities, and giving back. So, I have learnt a lot.
A Thousand Sisters is published by Seal Press, Perseus Books Group
To find out more, go to: A Thousand Sisters
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This article first appeared in the New African Woman magazine, February-March, 2012