As a child growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then, Zaire), Yvette Mulongo regularly watched as neighbours and friends lost their mothers. She noticed the gaping hole left in families by the death of a mother.
“It wasn’t until I became an adult, after I finished my studies, that I understood the connection between the early deaths of these women and our society,” she said, adding, “These connections include: ignorance, illiteracy coupled with the low status of women, poor health due to numerous, pregnancies and pregnancies that were too close together and women getting pregnant when they are too young or too old.”
And in 1998, a brutal civil war added sexual violence and atrocities to the litany of suffering many Congolese women endured.
For the last 16 years, Yvette Mulongo has been working to reverse this cycle of suffering by working toward women’s empowerment, largely through faith-based organizations, including Église du Christ au Congo and IMA World Health. Now, as project manager for the Abbott Maternal Assistance Program and Director of Family Planning within the SANRU Program, she helps brings primary healthcare to the DRC’s rural areas. In DRC, as in many African countries, faith-based organizations deliver a majority the health care, especially in rural areas, and SANRU has helped build on this model and make the health care delivery more effective.
With support from UNFPA, Ms. Mulongo has developed training materials on family planning methods and provides contraceptives to help women plan and space their families, ultimately giving them more control of their lives.
Educate a woman to educate a nation
Ms. Molongo received the Board of Advocate Award for her work from Americans for UNFPA, which supports the work of UNFPA in the United States, in conjunction with the 2011 Celebration for the Health and Dignity of Women and International Women's Day.
Upon receiving the award, she said, “My heart goes back to those Congolese women who are delivering their babies without assistance of a skilled health worker or midwife; women who die while delivering and leave orphaned children behind; to the women and young girls raped and the unwanted babies abandoned by their mothers; to the women living with dishonour due to the fistulas; women who are walking many kilometres to reach health care services.
“There’s a saying that if you educate a woman you can educate a nation,” she added. “It’s a personal passion of mine to raise awareness, educate women and see how behaviors change over time and to see how we can contribute to the well being of the Congolese women.”
Transforming communities by promoting human rights
Yvette Molongo transforms communities by promoting cultural acceptance of women’s and girls’ rights in a country where gender-based violence is deeply rooted and where women’s and girls' bodies have literally become a battleground.
“I teach women how to stand up for themselves and their children,” she said. “I work to sensitize and train clinical workers, and communities to promote the benefits of birth spacing and safe motherhood. I encourage parents, families, and communities to give value and share opportunities with both daughters and sons.”
While she sees progress, she also faces many cultural and social obstacles in the country that ranks second to last in UNDP’s Gender Equality Index and where sexual violence was commonly used as a weapon of war. In spite of sky high rates of maternal mortality, some churches oppose contraception, and women need written permission from their husbands to obtain family planning services.
Still, Ms. Monlongo works tirelessly to empower women and girls by teaching them to read and write, and to access the best health care available before, during and after their pregnancies in order to have the lives that they deserve. “The work I do is complicated,” she says, “some days I am attending to women’s health care needs, other days I am changing attitudes about a woman’s right to dignity and longevity.”
Drawing inspiration from her faith and her ancestors
She draws inspiration from her forebears. “My inspiration for this work comes from my grandmother, who was a chaplain, and my father who was a Methodist pastor. They taught me the value of offering consolation, and emphasized that the consolation found in prayer is one of the most important ways to care, to alleviate the immense suffering we see around us. They were ready to share meals with those who would have otherwise gone without, to console the mother who lost her child and the young people with HIV.”
Had they not encouraged her to go to school, she explains, she would be living in poverty facing harsh realities like many other women in her country. “I started my work after the looting of our country, just after the Congo Brazzaville war,” she recalls. “I saw terrible things: lines of women walking for miles, carrying their children, pregnant women...hiding in the forests to escape surprise raids on the villages.”
Legacy of a brutal war
The conflict in Congo is sometimes referred to as the ‘African World War,’ which eight African nations, as well as about 25 armed groups. It has devastated the country since its onset in 1998 and is the world’s deadliest conflict, killing 5.4 million people and displacing a million more. According to the United Nations, 200,000 women have been raped since the beginning of the war.
Peace accords were signed in 2003 but fighting continues in the east of the country. Rape has become a common weapon of war used by rebel groups and the national army alike.
Ms. Molongo's lifelong dedication is therefore not easy. “I do get tired,” she says, “but this vision is one I share with others who have a lot of energy to offer—university students, young women who are doctors...Together we will be able to yield success.”
UNFPA Support in the DRC
UNFPA helps to create a supportive environment for the work Yvette and her colleagues do to support and empower women in the DRC. The Fund aids survivors of sexual violence by providing medical care, economic and social rehabilitation, and legal assistance. It has trained thousands of armed forces on protection and care for survivors. In Kasai Oriental, North and South Kivu, over 15,000 sexual violence survivors have received medical care through UNFPA support. In camp Kibaki, home to 200,000 displaced people, UNFPA provides condoms, kits to test for and treat sexually transmitted infections, post- exposure treatment for rape cases and clean delivery kits.
UNFPA played a key advocacy role in the 2006 adoption of the DRC law on sexual violence, expanding it to include sexual harassment, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization and other brutal practices. The Government and UNFPA signed a Country Program Action Plan in 2008, totaling $60 million over five years, and the Government endorsed a UNFPA/World Health Organization package of reproductive health services for youth.