Jennifer Allsopp: Julienne, could you begin by introducing yourself and telling us a bit about your work and the context in which you operate?
Julienne Lusenge: My name is Julienne Lusenge and I’m an activist for women’s
rights in the DRC. We are an organisation that fights against the impunity of
crimes, against war crimes in our region, and for the rights of victims of sexual violence and war.
For the last 16 years we’ve been living in a state of war in the east of our country. It’s a war of aggression with neighbouring countries. There are national armed groups and there are foreign groups who pillage our region. We want the armed groups to return to Uganda and Rwanda and we want our government to deal with the national groups. But many armed groups are being manipulated and impunity reigns. The war is sustained by companies of war who mercilessly exploit the resources of our country.
Since 2002 the Congolese government has been organising a dialogue between the Congolese people. We asked the government to include all of the militias and the heads of the militias in the dialogue, but in spite of this people think that the only way that they can obtain power is through arms. When there are negotiations which involve rebel forces each person makes a rebel group and heads to the negotiations in the hope of gaining power. But we want peace. We’re tired of war. It’s women’s bodies who are used as battlefields in this war. When armed groups confront one another it’s women who pay the price.
Thousands of women are raped with atrocious violence, children are recruited and young women are detained as sexual slaves by the armed groups. If we live violence every day, how can we work for the development of our country so that we can benefit from human rights like other countries and like other women?
We want all of the violence to stop and we want the international community to work effectively and concretely. There are lots of resolutions that have been adopted by the UN. There are lots of accords that have been signed too. We’ve also now got a UN mission in our country. But what are all these people, all these soldiers going to do in Congo so that women feel protected when they are currently raped next to UN bases? When women are abducted from outside their bases? We want there to be more evaluation of this mission. We don’t want it to be like the Congolese army and for it to do the same thing. The brigades need to be properly trained before they are deployed, trained in respect for democratic values and democracy. They need to be properly trained to work for peace so that they don’t sit back and watch women get raped.
JA: Can you tell me a bit about your day to day work as a peace activist?
JL: (laughs) Day to day ! We work all day and night. We have no rest, because each day we have women coming to us who have been attacked and raped. There are so many victims of sexual violence, so many problems of security and human rights violations that we always have victims at our door. So we have to take care of them; we have to take them to the hospital, organise counselling for the women and accompany them at each stage of the pursuit of justice. We help them to find a lawyer and then we pay the legal fees, hospital fees etc. That’s what we do, every day.
In addition to this work we do lobbying with local authorities and the international community to denounce what is happening and to make recommendations from the perspective of the women in North Kivu and Congolese women as a whole.
We’re always searching for the resources to do this work. Some NGOs and international NGOs who work in the DRC set up in opposition to women’s associations instead of collaborating. But we say ‘no, we know how to do it, we know how to document and report. We know how to do our work’. We are the experts in our situation and they need to let us work and give us the means to help women. We know the solutions to our problems. We know, in particular, how to fight the inequality and the customs and traditions which are still strong today. We’re trying to build the women’s movement. We’re working a lot on the situation of sexual violence today, but we also work on combating outdated traditional practices which constrain women.
JA: Could you talk in a bit more detail about these customs and traditions and your work around that?
JL: Today there are customs which prevent women from eating meat, drinking milk, eating eggs and speaking in front of people. There is an article in the Family Code that say that a marriage is not legitimate and cannot be legally recognised if it has not been registered by the state. So you could have lived with a man for 40 years but if he wants to throw you out and you haven’t had your marriage registered then you will have no right to contest this. This is common. We work with women to help them to talk to their husbands and ask them to register the marriage. And of course we are working to get rid of that article from the Family Code. This is the same Family Code that says that you can marry a girl who is 14 years of age, and which contains an article that says that a married woman is basically a minor. At the age of 55 today I can’t own any property. I can’t own a house, I can’t even own a dog or a car. First I have to ask my husband for permission. He can then sign to say, yes she has bought it. So we’re working to get rid of all that from our Family Code.
JA: you spoke earlier today on a panel on women human rights defenders and, in particular, the threats that women face and strategies to protect them on the ground. Could you talk a bit about the strategies you have developed in your region?
JL: If women speak out about what is going on in my region, if they come to public meetings and raise their hands they get called prostitutes, they are considered ‘bad’ women. There are those who talk to our husbands and try to win them round psychologically by saying, ‘hey mind your woman, why do you let her speak out and leave all the time? That’s not a wife, why don’t you get a proper wife?’ Some women lose their husband and their home because of their work.
Then there are the women who are attacked by the armed groups and security forces because of our work accompanying victims of war. We are the ones who denounce it when women are raped, and so people come to rape us to punish us for this work. Some women are cut by machetes or knives. On 4th November 2009 a colleague of mine was completely cut by a machete. She had bullets in different parts of her body and was very badly mutilated.
In other cases it’s the husband that they attack for not controlling you. In one case a man’s eye was very badly damaged and we had to take him to get urgent help. They were telling him, ‘tell your wife to stop bringing evidence against that war lord who has committed a lot of atrocities in the east of the country’. Your family can turn against you for putting them in danger.
Then there are also attacks among activists. Some men in civil society say they work for human rights but they don’t; they speak out against women who are activists. So we have lots and lots of problems of insecurity in our region because of the armed groups. The government says ‘oh no, we can’t protect you because we can’t control these groups’.
JA: Can you tell me about your experience of the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference so far and what will you be taking away with you?
JL: With the solidarity of other women at the international level we are able to overcome many of the problems we face because when they call us, send us messages and give us very practical resources it helps us to pull through. They help to stop us falling into trauma. So these workshops which bring women together to talk and become stronger and to share resources and experiences are important.
Here we’re obviously heard the experiences of lots of other women. The experiences of the Guatemalan women have left a particular impression on us. They are so strong, but it also touched us what they’ve said about taking the time to care for yourself and rest a bit too. We’re going to try to put some of that into practice. In spite of all the problems we have, we’re going to try to find the time to rest and to recharge. It’s also important for women who have been attacked to rest properly.
Of course we also need resources to take home with us. We need resources so that when something happens to one of our women we can evacuate her to somewhere safe where she can live in security with her family. Women must have means of communication too. There are offices which still have no computers today and many women can’t even communicate on the phone. They don’t have credit even if they have phones. So we live and work in a situation of precariousness and that makes us insecure. When you work in a climate of insecurity you don’t know how to protect yourself, but when you have a phone you can call someone and that can help to protect you. For example we have set up an alert system; women will send text messages and then I send an email to one of our partners. So these are things we’re trying to build on.
We’re also going to try to engage more people in our work, but that’s always hard. There are those who say, ‘it’s the work of a poor person because there’s no future’ and ‘it’s too risky’. But we want to involve young people. We also want young people to help from other countries, for them to invite our young women to countries like yours from time to time to share with them so that they can get the support and strength they need.
Jennifer Allsopp interviewed Julienne Lusenge during the Nobel Women's Initiative conference Moving Beyond Militarism and War: Women-Driven Solutions for a Nonviolent World, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Read 50.50's full coverage of the conference.