DR Congo

DR Congo: Helping female ex-combatants regain their livelihoods

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- A pilot project in DRC aims to help demobilize and reintegrate female ex-combatants

- Two-hundred people in the town of Kindu are facing down stigma and learning basic skills

- A program evaluation will compare women who have been helped with those outside the program

WASHINGTON, November 4, 2008 -- Women are among the most vulnerable groups in post-conflict situations. This is true in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where female ex-combatants often find themselves heading households alone, raising children and having to provide food and shelter for their families.

A new pilot project, financed by the Multi-country Demobilization and Reintegration program (MDRP), an initiative funded by the World Bank and 13 donors, specifically targets female ex-combatants and is assisting them in regaining a place in society.

LEAP

In June 2008, the MDRP's Learning for Equality, Access and Peace initiative, or LEAP, launched a pilot project in the town of Kindu, in the Maniema province, to support vulnerable female ex-combatants. The project, still in its infancy, aims to encourage income-generating activities and train beneficiaries in basic skills such as business management, household management and micro-credit. The project also seeks to support associations and raise awareness about gender-based violence.

Funded by the MDRP and implemented by Caritas, a catholic non governmental organization, the project will be implemented over a 10-month period.

"After visits to various parts of the town in Kindu where the beneficiaries live, I can tell you that the social situation of these female ex-combatants is really tough," said Boniface Nakwagelewi, project manager for Caritas. "Most of them were forcibly recruited while going to work in the fields or fetching water. They have endured really difficult moments in the armed groups. Now that they are demobilized, they live in precarious conditions."

Facing stigma after demobilization

Though a vast majority of women and girls are forced into joining armed groups, upon being demobilized and returning home , they face persistent stigma from their own families and communities.

Specific prejudices include the assumption that the women have been sexually abused and hence have lost their 'purity'. Host communities are also fearful of the aggressive behavior they believe the women may have acquired while away and that members of their military group may follow them to their communities. The women's own assumptions reinforce these perceptions and they sometimes choose to marginalize themselves from the community.

A total of 200 people -- 140 female ex-combatants and 60 members of the local community, mainly young mothers between 15 and 22 years old - were selected for the program. A few men are also enrolled.

The project team is working on sensitization of the local community and on gender based violence. Participants are gaining basic literacy and numeracy skills, and some will soon receive training on the management of income generating activities and micro-credit. Three main categories in income-generating activities have been identified: agriculture, small trade and product transformation.

"I was forcibly enrolled in the Mai-Mai movement as I was going to work in the field," said one of the project's beneficiaries. "Now that I'm demobilized, I am happy to know that Caritas will help me learn agriculture so that I can take care of myself and my children."

Sharing lessons learned

At the end of the project, an evaluation will compare the situation of the 200 program beneficiaries with other women who have not received support from LEAP. The conclusions and lessons will be shared with other disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) practitioners in the DRC and other countries. The overarching goal is to identify good practices in reintegration that can be replicated and eventually will lead to sustainable peace in conflict-affected countries.

"We hope that the lessons from this pilot project will result in concrete and practical improvements of the gender component of DDR programs, not only in the Great Lakes region but also in the rest of Africa," said Bernard Harborne, manager of the MDRP in Washington.

The World Bank and MDRP have been partnering with the DRC government on the 'Programme national de désarmement, démobilization et réintegration' (PNDDR or National program for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration) since 2004. Through the PNDDR, more than 2,600 women as of July 2008 have been demobilized and are receiving reintegration support.