Democratic Republic of Congo: Supporting women's rights and addressing the root causes of the conflict

With just 48 hours to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo, there was no time to lose once we crossed the border into Goma from Rwanda. I was travelling with Mark Goldring of Oxfam GB and Robbert van den Berg, the regional director for Oxfam Novib. Our mission was to visit our humanitarian programs, and assess progress since the signing of a major regional peace accord last year.

Decades of conflict in eastern Congo have created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. One of Africa’s largest countries, DRC is ranked 186 out of 187 countries worldwide on the Human Development Index, despite its abundant natural resources.

Oxfam’s work in the country combines short-term emergency relief with longer-term development projects, including providing clean water and sanitation to communities, hospitals and schools, protection programs, and distribution of vouchers for food.

First up, a security briefing and then a visit to the governor of the province of North Kivu, Julien Paluku. Our first impressions of Goma were out the window of an Oxfam vehicle, and as we bumped along the lava-strewn road, I could make out the volcano Nyiragongo in the distance. It last erupted in 2002, swallowing most of the city of Goma. Luckily the population was able to evacuate in time and there were few casualties. But the black rocks of lava are still strewn across the city's roads, the lava dust gets everywhere.

With governor Paluku we were able to get an introduction to some of the humanitarian issues facing communities in North Kivu, as well as get a taste of politics in eastern Congo. The governor has been in power for seven years and is an old hand.

Children of #Congo at a refugee camp. What is the future for them? Why can't regional leaders work together 4 peace?

— Winnie Byanyima (@Winnie_Byanyima) April 6, 2014

Supporting peace

Next up, we drove to the headquarters of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the DRC, MONUSCO, on Lake Kivu. Head of office for North Kivu, Ray Torres used maps to outline the upcoming operations against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the largest illegal foreign armed group operating in the DRC. Mr. Torres also touched on the issue of Rwandan refugees in DRC - estimated to number 180,000 - and told us about the challenge of protecting civilians in a context where members of armed groups often don't wear uniform and may live with their dependents.

We also discussed how to provide aid to areas in eastern Congo which have been cleared of armed groups thanks to joint operations by the Congolese army and MONUSCO's new brigade with a mandate to 'neutralise' armed groups. How can we do this in such a way that the aid is delivered according to need, and not for political goals?

Our dinner that night was by the lake, surrounded by humanitarian and development partners to talk about their activities and their hopes and fears for the future.

The next day, we packed wellingtons and umbrellas for a three hour drive up to Kitchanga, in a part of North Kivu called Masisi. As we drove, I saw so many women walking along the roads, carrying very heavy loads on their heads and backs.

Kitchanga that has been badly affected by recent fighting between armed group the Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS) and the Congolese army - we heard stories from men and women who had been forced to flee their homes and fields in order to seek refuge in the town. On the way back to Goma later that day we also visited Bulengo, a camp where an Oxfam water pump is still in operation, although we are no longer involved in the program, it is now being very effectively run by Mercy Corps, providing water for tens of thousands of people in the camp.

I was moved by the passion, commitment & risks taken daily by these Congolese women leaders.They will rebuild Congo!

— Winnie Byanyima (@Winnie_Byanyima) April 6, 2014

Supporting women's rights

The next day, we met with civil society leader Omar Kavota to talk about the challenges facing democratic process here. This was followed by a meeting with a group of women leaders - lawyers, activists and NGO leaders - to talk about their concerns.

I highlighted my respect for their work with human rights defenders and explained my background as a women's rights activist, asking the provocative question 'are Congolese men worse than other men?'

In this way, the group of women leaders took the cue to reflect on the root causes of the conflict, and the role gender plays in DRC's root causes, rather than focusing on what are sometimes referred to as the 'symptoms' of the conflict, such as the sexual violence.

I encouraged the group to step up their advocacy on a gendered perspective on the root causes of the conflict, to coordinate more, to be more radical and for Oxfam to coordinate and support their actions.

Last up, a quick chat with the staff working for Oxfam in North Kivu, a photo opportunity with my wonderful colleagues (below) and a quick chat with UN radio station in DRC, Radio Okapi, before we headed to the border with Rwanda. Goodbye DRC, see you soon.

Across the DRC, over 2.75 million people have been forced to flee their homes within the country, and over 398,000 are dependent on the resources provided in 31 camps. Oxfam has been responding to needs in camps in eastern Congo, delivering clean water and sanitation, hygiene promotion, livelihood support, and food programs.

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