The Joint Programme “Project to Support Stabilization and Conflict Prevention in North Kivu” (the Programme) aimed to contribute to improved security and stabilization in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s troubled province of North Kivu. It adopted a holistic and multi-sectoral approach to conflict prevention and peacebuilding based on conflict analysis. The focus was on community-based reintegration of returnees (ex-combatants and displaced persons) and survivors of sexual violence, improvement of absorption capacity and livelihoods, and community-based prevention initiatives. Special attention was paid to the needs, participation and empowerment of vulnerable women, including survivors of sexual violence, widows, women heads of households and poor women.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one of the poorest countries in the world. Human Development Indicators are among the lowest in the world. Added to the structural causes that underlie these data, years of conflict have severely affected the country and directly and indirectly caused over 5.4 million deaths since 1998; 45,000 people continue to die each month.1 Insecurity still prevails in most of the country.
The issue of stabilization and peace in the eastern DRC remains a major challenge for the country. In the Beni Territory, which is the Programme intervention area, the displacement and return situation is as follows:2
Returnee and displaced households/persons
No. of returnee households
No. of displaced households
No. of displaced persons
Especially worrisome are threats to women’s security in the face of military operations. With alarmingly high rates of sexual violence, women still largely assume the responsibility for caring and providing for children, which is affected by huge constraints in access to resources such as land.
The economic activities of the Beni Territory essentially depend on agriculture, livestock farming and trade. The agrarian system, dominated by subsistence agriculture, consists of small-scale farmers using traditional cropping techniques (hoes, machetes, coupe-coupe, etc.) with poor yields. The development of agriculture is constrained by the lack or poor state of the agricultural service roads, lack of improved seeds, fertilizer and agricultural supports, as well as lack of agricultural credit. The two major constraints to the development of livestock farming are the lack of veterinarian products and the continuous insecurity with the presence of armed groups who steal livestock.
At the social level, the prevailing situation in the health and education sectors is marked by the lack of infrastructure (dilapidated buildings that are no longer in compliance with building codes) and equipment.
The situation of women is also characterized by their absence at the decision-making level. Local traditions do not favor the inclusion of women in decision making because the main role attributed to them is to take care of children and household tasks.
It is in this context that in 2009, international partners set up a comprehensive programme aimed at the stabilization and reconstruction of the eastern DRC, the Stabilization and Reconstruction Plan for Eastern Congo (STAREC) Programme. Within the framework of this Programme, in 2009 the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) launched the Programme “Project to Support Stabilization and Conflict Prevention in North Kivu” aimed at the economic revitalization, restoration of social services and promotion of social cohesion as vectors of peace consolidation in the Beni Territory.
The aim of the Programme was to contribute to improved security and stabilization in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s province of North Kivu.
Through a holistic and multi-sectoral approach to conflict prevention and peacebuilding based on conflict analysis, the Programme intended to contribute to the safety and stabilization of population in North Kivu. In all of the community bodies on which the Programme relied (community support networks, sanitation committees, management committees, farmers’/producers’ organizations, and more), an equal representation of women and men was required. With the aim of overcoming structural discriminations tending to exclude women from information and decision-making spheres, specific efforts were made so that would be involved in all phases of the Programme, from the initial analysis to planning, implementation and monitoring.
Multi-purpose Community Centres (Centre Communitaire Polyvalente, CCPs) were at the heart of the gender strategy developed by the Programme. The CCP is a holistic support service aimed at women’s empowerment through the provision of social services such as psychosocial assistance, literacy and child-care, as well as the promotion of income-generating activities. As opposed to the domestic space, CCPs allow women to participate in the public sphere within their communities to influence local decision-making. Based on previous local initiatives, three new CCPs were built within the framework of the Programme. Women’s participation in CCP management structures was actively encouraged. As a consequence, the supported CCPs have almost 50 per cent of women among their board members.
Multi-purpose Community Centres (CCPs) provide multiple psychosocial and economic services for the entire village community and particularly, for the survivors of sexual violence. Setting up psychosocial self-help groups within the CCPs allowed participants, both women and men, to reflect on conflicts experienced at the community level and ways to overcome them by focusing on their specific gender needs. Twenty-three people, of whom 16 were women and 7 men, were trained to assist traumatized people, with a particular focus on survivors of sexual violence. As a result of their psychosocial and mediation assistance, a large number of persons who were marginalized and/or rejected by the family have been able to reintegrate communities. Survivors of sexual violence, grouped in the CCPs, received agricultural support (inputs and skills) for the implementation of agricultural activities carried out in these CCPs.
Community radio has played a key role in the promotion of gender equality within the targeted communities. The Joint Programme set up a new community radio station (in Isalé) and strengthened an already existing one (in Béni) with the goal of promoting dialogue on peaceful resolution of conflicts, peace consolidation and social reintegration within the communities. To achieve this, the Programme supported the creation of several listening groups and five Community Alliance Nodes (Noyaux d’alliance communautaires, NACs), composed of 50 per cent women, who were encouraged to have an active role in the community. The two community radio stations also included a large number of women/girls as journalists and in their Management Committees.
Community radio has effectively promoted discussion and reflection on women’s rights and gender equality. As an example, members of listening groups reported that they changed their opinion on the schooling of young girls and early marriage following community radio awareness-raising broadcasts and the active participation of girls in the radio and listening group activities. This is a first step to promote equal opportunities for girls and boys in access to education.
To facilitate the understanding of women’s situations and to address specific problems of protection, the Programme promoted the creation of young and women’s forums, as spaces where women could openly discuss their concerns. In total, 20 women’s forum and 11 young forum were put in place. Additionally, 21 Local Committees against Sexual Violence have been created.
Revitalization of Local Economies and Women’s Economic Empowerment
Within the framework of the CCPs, technical training and start-up equipment and supplies were provided to initiate income-generating activities. Supported income-generating activities (sewing and tailoring, baking, soap-making, embroidery, weaving, etc.) were largely run by women, especially women survivors of sexual violence. In total, 627 persons (488 women and 139 men) were involved in these activities linked to the CCPs.
Three markets were built in the Beni Territory. Markets not only serve as places for buying and selling produce, but also for social exchange, education and information. Each market is managed by a Community Committee, with almost 50 per cent women. For instance, one of the markets was provided with a storage warehouse for the unsold agricultural stock, which is very useful for women because they can keep their merchandise there upon returning from the market, thus saving them the trouble of carrying heavy loads over long distances.
Tenure security is essential in a territory where land access is very limited. Within the framework of the Programme, 43 land cession contracts were signed, allowing securing 172 ha for 3,124 households, of which 1,643 were headed by women (53 per cent). Farming these lands that are near to the villages has resulted in:
- Increased economic empowerment of women (widows, divorcees, heads of households, people living with HIV and survivors of sexual violence, etc.) who could then support their household needs (food, health care, education, etc.);
- Improved food security (increased food availability and accessibility) and the nutritional status of household members (notably through increased consumption of vegetables and the introduction of new crops such as soya);
- Reduced risks for the women from the remoteness and isolation of the fields. The plots farmed by the households were grouped together in a large site, so that women were not left alone in the field. Due to this secure land access, 624 women were then able to leave the dangerous Virunga Park.
Poor agricultural practices, common in the area, limit the development of the sector and can lead to a loss of production of around 40 per cent. With the aim of limiting these losses, households were trained in good agricultural practices and provided with tools and quality seeds. Training was addressed to both women and men, including the promotion of a more equitable distribution of farming tasks. The harvest assessments showed that farmers trained in good agricultural practices succeeded in tripling their production. Analyses on yield and revenue are currently being carried out in order to confirm these results.
Processing infrastructures reduce women’s working hours and lighten the burden of their tasks, as well as increase productivity. The Programme set up 50 processing machines (corn mills, rice hulling machines, palm oil mixers), managed communally by the Farming Organizations, 60 per cent of which are run by women.
The Joint Programme promoted the creation and strengthening of Mutual Societies for Solidarity (Mutualités de Solidarité, MUSO). These are solidarity groups of savings and credit consisting of around 20 people each. It is a mechanism for attracting the microfinance institutions (MFIs) to cater to groups that, up to then, have had little or no access to these institutions. In collaboration with another project, Programme d’appui au secteur de la microfinance (PASMIF, Micro-Finance Support Programme), there are now over 200 MUSOs (consisting of over 75 per cent women) in the Beni Territory. They have allowed women to access small credits to support their household needs, contributing to the construction of their homes, acquisition of small livestock, children’s education and more.
Improvement of Basic Social Services
The Programme supported the improvement of basic social services, notably in the health/hygiene and education sectors. Four health centers, one nutritional center and two health units were built and equipped. This allowed for the improvement of vaccination rates of children and antenatal care for women. In the Mbutaba Health Centre 2, for example, the use of maternity services increased from 30 to 50 per cent.
Similarly, the filtering of springs and development of sustainable water points (springs or wells) contributed to a considerable reduction in water-related diseases. The provision of 3,500 tiles for household toilets and the construction of toilets in schools and health centers has improved local sanitation in the villages. Girls and women assume most of the tasks concerning water and sanitation (water collection, cleaning of showers and toilets) and are the main users of these facilities, since they are responsible for accompanying their young children. Therefore, mainly women were consulted regarding the choice of site and type of infrastructures.
Girls’ school enrolment was encouraged in the awareness-raising sessions for parents and through community radio stations. Awareness-raising sessions were held to sensitize fathers and mothers on the importance of education by concentrating on having adolescents continue their schooling after primary school and to inform them about issues of pregnancies and early marriage.
Literacy courses were attended by 103 people (84 women and 19 men). Learning how to read and write encouraged the women in the rural communities (an environment where most of the adults are illiterate) to actively participate in community activities. They can now read correspondence from their children and read posters in Kiswahili. Their participation in the life of the community has changed because they can read, understand awareness-raising themes and follow the immunization schedule of the children, among many others benefits.
All actions carried out within the framework of the Programme (CCPs, Local Committees for Peace and Development, agricultural activities, community radio, markets) paid special attention to the promotion of women and girls’ empowerment and the strengthening of their leadership and their participation in local decision-making spaces. The analysis of the collected data shows indisputably that the Programme has contributed to trigger changes in terms of women’s position and gender equality in the communities, even if these changes are still fragile and must be consolidated.
The observed changes can be grouped into three main categories: empowerment of women in controlling their own destinies, strengthening of women’s skills and cooperation between women and men.
Women’s participation in the Programme has helped them to recognize that they have value and can contribute substantially to the life of the community. One of the major achievements of the Programme has been to allow women to express themselves and their concerns within the community. In the Beni Territory, local customs did not allow room for women to express themselves. Only men could speak. CCPs and women’s forums gave women an opportunity to talk about their problems and concerns.
Most of the activity in the CCPs, notably the income-generating activities, not only integrated many women (at times over half of the group), but were also led predominantly by them. This allowed women to have an impact on the decisions within these organizations and thus defend their interests within the community. The concept of parity has begun to be admitted and accepted in the community, including by the men.
CCPs and the linked income-generating activities are designed to empower women to take charge and be autonomous. It must be realized that in the Beni Territory, even if women contribute to the family budget through their work, they do not normally have access to it, nor are they consulted on how the men dispose of it. The Programme has not only supported women to start income-generating activities and, thus, put resources in their own hands, but also strengthened women’s capacities to manage these resources for the benefit of the whole family. This is also translating into reshaping attitudes in the family, and resulting in greater respect by the men for their wives.
The population of Beni Territory, which is a rural territory, is predominantly illiterate, particularly the female population. One of the Programme’s main achievements has been its contribution to the strengthening of women’s and girls’ capacities as a result of their participation in technical trainings, training in management and literacy courses. Similarly, the community radio awareness-raising contributed to an increase in the enrolment of young girls and, in turn, to the reduction of early marriage. Also significant are the behavioural changes observed in men. In many cases, they are the first to encourage their wives to participate in community activities, notably in the CCPs and income generation.
- Win-win strategy. The fact that women, through their activities, can contribute to the life of the family and the community, and the fact that they are no longer excluded from decisions regarding the use of money are signs of a development towards gender equality. This is therefore a component that needs further work so that women’s empowerment will not be perceived by men as a loss of their power, but as a way for providing women with the means to contribute to the growth of the family and community for the benefit of all.
- Community radio is a means par excellence to promote changes in rural areas, where social and cultural traditions persist to the disadvantage of girls and women. Proof of this is the considerable increase in girls’ enrolment in the schools following the awareness-raising sessions, community discussions, the campaigns on the importance of education for young girls and the information and discussions held in the community radio forums.
Social change is a long-term process. Thus, the behavioural changes triggered in the Beni Territory must be supported with respect to the weight of local customs. The role played by women within the structures where they are represented has to be consolidated given the traditional status of women in rural communities, which are characterized by resistance to innovations. To sustain the initial changes in the promotion of women and gender equality, further efforts must be made to support the CCPs and other structures and services set up by the Programme. Involvement of local authorities and civil society is of paramount importance.
1. Mortality in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: An ongoing crisis, International Rescue Committee, December 2007.
2. Bulletin annuel des statistiques sociales de la Province du
Nord/Kivu, Ministère du Plan, Division Provinciale du Nord/Kivu, May 2011.