“They teach us to wait for a husband who will resolve everything. Mistake!”

February 13, 2015 17:24

Equality at home: Participation

"I am married..."she said, by way of an introduction and after that, she goes quiet. The expression on her face becomes serious, impenetrable. Staring at the floor she says in weak voice: "That was long time ago".

She looks up again, with a steady gaze and says: "in fact, I have been widow for 11 years. But, I am also a human rights activist... or maybe that is an overstatement: I work towards development with organisations in Butembo, my city, and I help mainly the women. This is me, the one there, standing up".

Alphonsine Kamadu is 50 years old and has the smile of a young woman. She laughs as she tells stories non-stop: stories about others, her village, jokes. However, when she has to talk about herself, she gets nervous and starts hesitantly, although she speaks in a lively manner once she gets started. "Many Congolese women are taught to wait; to wait for a husband who will resolve everything and will do everything for us; and we think our problems have come to an end. However, it is not like that. I have learnt that thanks to my husband: a man who preached equality and opened great doors for me in that sense".

Alphonsine married freely to a man she loved: it was not a marriage arranged by her family. "My husband was an intellectual and from the beginning he insisted that I should participate fully in my own life and have my own experiences. We worked together, we were a team and he always asked me to accompany him to every city or country that he went to for work". This was how Alphonsine came to live, among other countries, in Chad..

For seven years, she spent time with women from these places, "there were women from Cameroon, Benin, Togo, Nigeria; they were there, like me, accompanying their husbands, but when we had meetings, they always talked about their jobs, activities and friends in common... and I did not do anything. One day, they said to me: "Alphonsine, you should do something to have a fulfilling life; one day you will go back to your country and, if your husband does not get a job, what are you going to do? You must to stop waiting at home, you have to be able to make decisions, because not everything lasts forever and you do not know what life has in store for you, especially, in your country such as your own, which is permanently at war".

Given that she was not able to go to university in Chad, Alphonsine decided to study hairdressing and beauty therapy with a Chadian friend. For some months, she went to the hair salon to learn. "My husband was really glad to see me come home from work so happy, with stories to tell him... we laughed a lot in that period. But, also, I had my own money to save and to buy my things. I felt exultant".

Returning to the Democratic Republic of Congo: Protection

Alphonsine and her husband went back to Butembo in 1997, after spending seven years abroad. "My husband sent CVs, but he did not find a job. Then, with the money we had both saved, we set up a hair salon and it was me who supported the family for a while". By this time, the couple had adopted two children, despite the criticism from Alphonsine's in-laws. "We could not have children, but my husband never reproached me and he never allowed comments or criticism in our presence".

Finally, Alphonsine's husband found a job in the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ituri, the eastern province, and they left Butembo. "He worked in a refugee camp for Sudanese people and I offered to work as volunteer. I worked every day and I met everyone there. I liked the job. Then, afterwards, the 1998 war began". This conflict, which was also known as the Second Congo War or the Great African War, started in the East of the country and officially lasted until 2003. Nine African countries were involved in this war, as well as more than 30 armed groups. "At that time, everyone started to run away because the Rwandans were coming. We had to go to the forest, like everyone else. However, the families of the refugee camp told us: "Come here, we will protect you, they will not look for you here. So, we stayed and spent four months living with the Sudanese refugees who had nothing and lived in the most absolute poverty, but nevertheless offered us everything. They saved our lives".

After four months, Alphonsine and her family came back to Butembo, and once again the hair salon supported the family. "It was at this time that we found out my husband was ill. We spent the last two years of his life together in the hair salon. He helped me and we listened to the stories that the women told us: their lives that were sometimes hard; the problems with their violent husbands. I said to myself that one day I would help women, particularly those who are refugees".

The widowhood: promotion

Middle aged and older women who lose their husbands frequently face periods of insecurity, as numerous interviews with women in South Kivu have demonstrated: the loss of the couple's property, the loss of land that stops them from working and feeding themselves, extradition to their country of origin if the husband was a policeman, soldier or civil servant; All of this happened because of corruption, women's lack of rights and the absence of local authorities' support.

Another problem that was denounced in the SMS that Femme au Fone has received is the accusations of witchcraft and the subsequent application of popular justice, which varies from stoning to expulsion from their communities. These SMS messages always refer to widows as the main victims. Behind these accusations, there are frequently very clear economic interests,: taking away the women's land and property, or denying them the right to inherit. "That is always behind it", Alphonsine insists. "Even if we study, live abroad or have progressed, in their eyes we are still only African women and it...seems inevitable".

After the death of her husband, Alphonsine's -in-laws wanted to reclaim the couple's property and to leave her with nothing, because they argued that the goods were bought by the husband and, after his death, everything returned to his family. "It was thanks to the women's organisations I worked with; the studies I had begun; my education and the fact that I knew my rights, which made me able to fight until I achieved justice because justice is the solution to the problem of retrograde traditions against women. This is how I managed to keep my house and my hair salon. However, it was a hard time. After that, my in-laws turned their back on me".

Nowadays, Alphonsine gives lectures at Butembo Business School (ISC), where she is also head of human resources. "My husband was dead and I told myself that I had to carry on progressing, fighting and making decisions by myself, as he always used to say to me. This is why I started to study again, and now with my job at the ISC and the hair salon, I can help other women to progress with micro−credits. It is not a very big thing; I help those women who are around me and some female refugees. I also try to tell them as best as I can about my husband: his thoughts about marital relationships, equality and parity between partners, the positive aspects of the collaboration between husband and wife. It is a great problem that frequently causes domestic violence".

Alphonsine takes a deep breath, smiles and makes a signal to carry on recording the conversation. "It is necessary for women to stop waiting; a woman must take care of herself and, in doing so, become free. She has to go beyond prejudice, to progress. We call men "daddy" and expect they will give us everything, like a father, but they are our partners. Therefore, we have to be independent and equal".