15 feb 2016 by Sebastiaan van der Hoek |
That volcanic soil offers an excellent nurturing ground for beans, cassava and onions, I learned from my education at Wageningen University. Intrigued, I look at women who work the land while driving through Rwanda and approaching the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It is the rainy season. The fresh green crops and colorful pagnes contrast with the dark and wet soil. Misty clouds hang over the hills covered in rainforest. The fertile soil of the Virunga plateau must have a lot to offer to the local farmers, I think – but I’m wandering off. I am on a duty trip for Cordaid to help establish the Women, Peace and Security Program further. And what does thát have to do with agriculture and land?
When I read the house rules of my hotel in Goma, I quickly am made aware of the facts. “Two persons of equal sex are not allowed to share a room without approval of the management”, it says. It couldn’t be clearer: gender equality is far from obvious here. Even though Congo can be counted among the poorest countries in the world – 77% of the population lives off less than $1.90 a day – a hotel soon costs you over $100 a night. But you are not allowed to decide on whom you’re sharing your room with. No, I did not come here without good reason; there remains a lot to be done.
Gender role patterns amplified by war
A UN helicopter flying over makes me definitively aware that I have just stepped into another world. East-Congo is a post-conflict area, but the aftermath of the war still festers on in the different territories of the Kivu provinces. The Congo wars have not helped to decrease the inequality between women and men. On the contrary, a quick search on Google shows that the DRC is also called the “Rape Capital of the World”. Women often come off worst in times of war, especially in Congo, where sexual violence has been used explicitly as ‘weapon’ to tear communities and families apart. The roles and expectations of being ‘man’ or ‘women’ have been ripped out of context so much during the conflicts, that every day it causes a lot of violence in the region.
Women and elections
The Congolese government and her laws are not exactly helping to diminish the gap between men and women. The latter is told to me by the women of the civil society groups during a meeting some days later in Bukavu. Even though the Constitution underlines equal rights of men and women, during elections female candidates are hardly found on the lists. “This is because the electoral law does not determine a quota”, the ladies explain to me. In the Code Electoral that I look up that evening, I read that every third candidate has to be of the other sex, followed by the clause that this is not a binding criterion for the legal validity of an electoral list.
When I think about this, it’s ridiculous. Around 75% of Congolese women (or almost everyone who is not too old or weak) is part of the work force. A major part of them contributes to the agricultural sector. They are the driving force behind the production of the food that feeds the mouths of Congo. It are the women who fulfill a significant role in keeping the fragile local economies running. Not just by working hard in agriculture, but also at the same time by taking care of household and childrearing tasks. Even in times of insecurity and instability. And yet, women are rarely involved in the decision-making and governing of their country!?
Throngs of men are standing in line in front of the État civil in Kabare. I am visiting the Chef de Poste to obtain his approval for an activity that we planned. There is no objection and I get his signature with a stamp on my Ordre de Misison. I ask the chief what keeps him occupied, pointing towards the men in front of the building who do not seem to mind that I am jumping the queue. He sighs, and tells me he mostly deals with conflicts over land. It takes him much time and often leads to problems. There is no official Congolese government system to map and manage ownership of the land.
The unstable past of Congo has made land administration very complicated. Refugee crisis in the Netherlands? No comparison! The DRC lives through one of the largest mass migrations of people in history. The UN states that at this very moment, there are over two million internally displaced persons in Congo. Add to that hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighboring countries such as Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. You may have guessed: like in the Netherlands, that causes a lot of fighting over who is welcome and which acre of land belongs to whom. Unfortunately, this is frequently accompanied by violence.
Land rights for women
Also when land is at stake, women are not given any opportunities. Traditionally, women in Congo have no right to inheriting land in the family hierarchy. Often, women are not even allowed to register land in their name. And if you have the courage to fights for your right to own land, you still need the money and authorization of a man to start a lawsuit. This system is impossible to navigate for women who are heads of household in the Kivu-provinces (about 25% of all households). Often these women are widowed, single, ostracized or divorced. They are hardly able to secure a space for social and economic activities and run the risk of dropping even further below the poverty line, together with their children, which consequently makes them more vulnerable to violence and discrimination.
I probably don’t have to tell you that gender inequality and land are very important drivers of conflict and fragility. Nonetheless, these factors are regularly overlooked in the peace and security debate. Let alone that they are linked to discover better solutions to a peaceful and stable Congo. To start, we have to listen better to what women actually have to say. In addition, we can inform them about their (land) rights and help in formulating and communicating their plea to the right power holders. We can facilitate the negotiations with local leaders, land owners, governing bodies and institutes. And of course, we have to actively involve men in the dialogue on social norms and equal rights.
Nothing without women
Let there remain no doubt on what the Congolese women can do by themselves. The civil society movement, during the peace negotiations in Sun City in 2002, has put its foot down for equal participation of women in politics, economy and security. With the help of international development organizations they have become better organized over the years. Also Cordaid tries to improve the position of women in Congo via these means, to contribute to gender equality, peace, security and inclusive economic development.
My background in tropical land use is of real importance to me. Because the Congolese soil has a lot to offer – and it’s the women who cultivate that soil!