I did not choose to live in Brazil and I had never thought about living outside my country. I ran away from political persecution. I was part of a collective of lawyers who protested changes to the constitutional laws around the organisation of elections in my country in 2014. It was a forced situation and today I find myself here, in Brazil.
My country is a country with many sad memories. The trafficking of enslaved people, colonisation and empires, then the independence wars, and after independence we had dictatorship and more war. The murder of Congolese in genocides still happens today.
Genocide has been going on in Congo for more than 20 years. We have a political problem, a dictatorship that is trying to keep itself in power. We had a president who was assassinated. He had managed to overthrow the dictators in 1997, 32 years after they first came to power in the 1960s, but a few years later they murdered him and took the power again. They put into place a five-year transition period until they managed to organise democratic elections again. The one in power during the transition period won the election and stayed as president. He organised elections twice, and the constitution limits a president to two, five-year terms. He had run the country for five years during the transition, five years after the 2006 elections, and five years after the 2011 elections. That should have been his last election. But in 2016, when his term was ending, he started to manoeuvre. He had a parliamentary majority and he wanted to change the constitutional laws that limit the president's mandates.
Congo has more than 80 million inhabitants and it is not possible to understand why a small number of people, or a ruling class, can change the constitutional laws that were voted on by a referendum. A law that was voted on by more than 80 million people was about to be changed by a small number of people following their personal interests. That is not democratic at all. So in the face of so many fights and so many struggles, we stood up, as lawyers, as people who understood this part of the law. We went out on the streets as lawyers, with lawyers' clothes on, to represent the people so that no one would interfere with the constitutional laws. We demanded respect for our constitution. So, it is from there that my pursuit for freedom became more difficult.
How can we talk about the independence of Congolese woman when the ideal for women in society is to be married?
I have fought for freedom since I was young, because I was raised in a very violent society. I faced violence in all areas – social, economic, gender. I was raised in that environment, and my struggle for freedom started at a young age from my home. When I talk about gender violence, I am talking about something which is inside the family. I always say: “African sexism takes its strength from African culture.” Those traditional sexist laws are inside the family. You can see the discrimination against women inside your home.
The Congolese woman still does not stand in front of her family. She does not yet shout, or stand up and speak about her rights. She is still in that situation. But I always take my hat off to the Brazilian woman. I see how much they fight here. In the face of all the discrimination and suffering that they still face, they are there, fighting. Even the black women here, who suffer a lot. Brazilian women's activism for gender equality and rights is very advanced.
There is almost nothing comparable for the women in Congo. There are many the factors that cause this. First, there is a barrier for women in our culture that was built a long time ago. This barrier is reproduced inside our houses – it is a part of the daily life of Congolese families. It is true that we have laws that protect women in Congo, but the inequality is still happening inside the house.
How can we talk about the independence of Congolese woman when the ideal for women in society is to be married? The Congolese woman needs to start her fight by breaking with this idea. I am not saying here that Congolese culture is bad. On the contrary, I am very proud of my culture. I respect my habits and customs a lot. But when I say I have to break some of the customs, the culture regarding gender, it is to have equality. I say this regarding customs that were established by our ancestors and affect women directly. These laws, which are customs, were constituted by the particular environment of our ancestors, and men created these customs to the extent that they needed them.
But I think that today the world has evolved. There are many things that existed and that no longer exist. For example, in the past we lived on hunting and fishing, but not today. Today there are offices and people go to school. Technology and globalisation have made many things change. Things have to change for women too.
We need to get out of those old laws and customs that were created to govern an ancient (male) society. As it was in the past, women’s main role is getting married, having children and taking care of the home. To have freedom, we need to change that.
H. M., Five years in Brazil
This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.