Isabel: Katana, could you just begin with a brief introduction of your work in the DRC, your organization and the way you operate.
Katana: La Solidarité des Femmes Activistes pour la Défense des Droits Humains (The Solidarity of Female Activists for the Defence of Human Rights) is a women’s NGO which is independent of armed conflicts, and the organisation’s main line of work is the defence of human rights. We are actively involved in the search for peace, in the fight against sexual violence in all its guises and in the fight against the violation of human rights in South Kivu.
I: But we’re talking about a country which has suffered a very long war, a very savage war. What can women’s organisations do in the face of such conflict?
K: The DRC is a country which has always undergone armed conflicts and which continues to undergo conflicts, a country where a state of security or durable peace remains nonexistent. Given this situation women know what they have to do above all is to search for a durable peace, to fight against the different types of violence directed at women and others too, to get involved with denunciation and, what’s more, work in a way which defends the rights of everyone without distinction of race or tribe. In order to achieve peace, women must unite with others and put pressure on the government, whether at a local level or at the level of the Congolese government, and then also on an international level. This is the path towards peace in countries like ours.
I: When you say ‘search for peace’, how would you like to search? What are you doing to find it?
K: As far as searching for peace is concerned, our first step is community mobilisation, initially at a local level. We work with grass-roots communities, women’s associations, and also with young people who are often used and implicated in the violence. We also work with the political and administrative authorities, with the military authorities, different churches and also social leaders in order to ensure that they are also involved in our vision of finding peace. This is how we try and put an end to the different types of human rights violations.
I: You talk about violence against women. Can you explain what form this violence takes and to what degree it exists?
K: When I talk about violence against women, first of all there is the sexual violence which women undergo and which persists. Sexual violence against women has severe consequences because when a woman is raped it destabilises her whole family, it touches her children, her husband; it affects the whole community.
Furthermore, when we speak of violence against women we must remember that when a child is affected it’s as if the mother is affected too. When children are destabilised, when they don’t go to school, this also affects the mother.
And then when we speak about violence against women we must note that raped women today have lost all importance. It’s all about economic power, and economic power and poverty have made women worthless. There is also the socio-cultural aspect which destroys the very personalities of women.
There is also the political aspect: giving power to women. This is what allows women to reclaim what is theirs, whether economic power, political power, or socio-cultural power. This is our vision.
I: Could you explain in a bit more detail the work you do which allows you to realise this vision?
K: Above all there is our advocacy work. We have done advocacy work on the fight against the proliferation of light arms, we have done other advocacy campaigns on the fight against sexual violence, and also on the use of child-soldiers and all the young girls associated with military groups or forces. We also run popular mobilisation and awareness raising in the villages to denounce the various types of violation. We also have what we call ‘des noyaux de paix’ (peace groups) , that is to say, women grouped together at community level in the different localities, villages or commercial centres. We try to prepare these women to take the front seat in the fight against the different types of violation committed in their areas or villages.
And then we also try to build networks to better connect women at a local, national and sub-regional level, since these conflicts involve the whole area. We also help the children of rape victims get back into school system. We have to think about the future of these children as either they will be abandoned or dismissed as ‘time bombs’. We have to look after the education and the future of these children.
And then we work with the ex-service girls and with other women associated with the armed groups who have children resulting from rape. We also do community mediation and family mediation. The community mediation is mainly concerned with inter-tribal conflicts, and then we do family mediation with the aim of reinserting female victims of sexual violence back into the community. We also work on domestic violence, community mediation and family mediation.
We also try to put victims in touch with lawyers as there are lawyers who work with us who can help defend them. We also run activities in prisons because during armed conflicts vulnerable female victims are often arrested. These women don’t have access to legal aid, so we put them in touch with lawyers. Sometimes we also monitor their cases. There are cases of women have been attacked in the field, often in the villages. There is nobody to monitor their cases, so we try and visit these people in prisons. There are private cells too, cases where people are arrested and put in hidden prisons. We monitor their cases.
We work with young people too, because young people in the region are often used in the violence, in order to collect weapons etc. We try and prepare young women to take over from us in the future so that they can continue what we have begun.
We put pressure on the government, we go to Kinshasa. We have been in contact with the Vice-President, sorry, the President’s Advisor, so that the authorities can also prioritise women’s problems.
I: Do they listen to you?
K: Well I went to Kinshasa in 2007 to present them with the Front Line Award for women defenders of human rights prize that I had won for women in danger, and the President's Advisor welcomed me and he listened to me. There are moments to negotiate and moments to pile the pressure on, and the pressure we use is non-violent in nature. They listened to us and they came down to Kivu of course. The President’s Advisor launched the campaign on the fight against sexual violence.
Sometimes it’s not easy to have access to such people, to get the audience, and even if we have a whole programme planned, we don’t have the financial means to get it going. We don’t have the financial means to go and have meetings in Kinshasa. For the moment we have selected women who are organised and who can do lots of things, lots of initiatives, such as lobbying, but even at a local level people are afraid of this movement of women which has the potential to become so strong. Unfortunately we just don’t have the means to translate all the potential into action.
I: So at the end of the day it’s a problem of not having the necessary recourses which holds you back?
K: Actually there are three types of problem. Firstly there is the financial problem, secondly, the problem of isolation, we are isolated, we are far from the big cities, from the capital, and thirdly, we are destabilised all the time. Since we are becoming a strong movement people try to destabilise us morally, psychologically and materially too, so that we cannot go on. Let me give you an example, the example of renting an office. Many times we’ve been told to finish our meetings outside, under the trees, because the owner just decided to raise the rent. In this kind of situation we simply don’t have any other option. Each time we find ourselves set back, but we are proud that the authorities are scared of our actions. They think that if they give us the time, we might just replace men, but that’s not our intention.
I: And if you had to talk to me about a success, something which is important for you, what would it be?
K: Well success for us is the fact that various organisations and the international community are consulting us regarding popular mobilisation, on issues such as elections and sexual violence. Our biggest success is the growing consciousness of women in grass-roots communities. We have also built up a network of women at an interregional level, that’s really a success for us. And then success is also the fact that sometimes when the authorities have a meeting they invite us to participate. Similarly, when we have a decision to make and when we hold conferences we invite them to the meetings so that they can present themselves and so that we can talk. It’s important to talk. I mean often promises are made which don’t emerge, but still...
I: You are nevertheless visible.
K: Yes, in any case we are visible, both on a local and national level, and even in the international community since we organise actions with that in mind. But we want to be more noticed by the international community, so that our actions are acknowledged and supported too.
I: And for you, with the work you do, what is the importance of coming to a meeting like this?
K: The importance of coming to a meeting like this is that it allows me to go over what we’ve done. Personally I ask myself the question, what else can I add? That may mean changing the way I work or considering different types of action. What’s more I have the chance to learn from others’ experiences in order to improve the work I do, and that encourages me. Sometimes I can let myself go a bit and just talk, talk about the things that lie at the very heart of me. It encourages me to see that there are other women from all over the world who are involved in this. I feel proud when I see the women who are involved, when I see women who have won Nobel Prizes, and I say to myself, women can change the world.
Translated into English by Jenny Allsopp