Fizi: Land and violence against women

Raïssa KASONGO, Femme au Fone journalist

June 1, 2015 13:21

Fizi is a territory that, for years, was not under the government control and was a bastion of the president Laurent Désiré Kabila, specifically the area of Hewa Bora, where his forces trained to take over Kinshasa and bring the fall of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.

Nowadays, many of the areas of Fizi Territory remain out of the government control and some armed groups, such as the Mai-Mai Raia Mutomboki, spread terror and violate the most basic human rights.

In the south of the province, Fizi Territory surrounds the Tanganyika Lake, one of the Great Lakes of Africa, which hosts the biggest variety of fish in the world. It is the homeland of the Ba Bembe ethnic group, a population traditionally devoted to fishing and, nowadays, also to the artisanal mining. This activity has caused an increase of land conflicts in the region, generating a tremendous physical insecurity for women. Sexual violation is one of those threats to women's security.

"Our father died two years ago and my mother inherited a large area of land. However, a crew of men looking for minerals was very close by, in the Kasonge river. Step by step, they were digging and coming closer to our plot of land" a woman explains to FAF in the office of the Fizi administrator, the Congolese representative in the territory.

She is dishevelled, her dress is torn and she is breastfeeding a one-year old baby. The woman seems to be helpless. She cultivates palm oil and this activity allows her to support her family, as she states.

Gold search and crime against women

Many groups of native men and of men coming from other territories cross the Kasonge river in Fizi in search for minerals and invade enclosed lands.

"One day I was going to the market, and while I was walking, I overheard two men discussing how they were going to destroy our oil palms to start digging and looking for minerals. I recognised two shi men (an ethnic group inhabiting the Kabare and Walungu territories, and the other two South Kivu territories) that were working in the river and I started running home to warn my mother about what was happening. We ran to the fields and my mother suggested to me to go to the borders of our land to check what is happening, while she started tilling the soil. When we arrived there, men had actually started to grub up the palms," the woman states.

In Fizi Territory, the search of fields to dig is leading to an encroachment. The conflicts often scale up, and lead to fatalities. In the women's case this includes rape, as many human rights organisations have confirmed, and as it happened with this woman.

"I approached them and asked them why they were destroying our oil palms and the responsible of the crew responded that, as the owner was my father and he was dead, there was no owner anymore and they could do whatever they wanted. I insisted that they have to go and the man went out of the hole he was digging and threw me inside. He called his friends, there were fifteen of them or so. All of them started to hit me, then they ripped my clothes and at least five of them raped me. After that, I passed out," the woman says sobbing while she rocks the child.

A woman passed by and recognised the woman fainted on the ground. She ran to warn her woman who immediately went to rescue her daughter but when she arrived, the men were waiting for her. They hit the mother until they broke her an arm.

A fight against the ongoing impunity

The DR Congo has a law on sexual violence, passed in 2006, that recognises and outlaws a set of violent acts and sexual abuses committed in all the territories. Also in the mines women suffer many abuses and hounds committed by the workers and chiefs. These chiefs often harass and force women from poor backgrounds, who need a salary, to have sex to be paid. "At the end of the day, they are forced to choose: they agree to be raped or they do not get paid," a researcher points out to FAF.

Fizi women are increasingly denouncing the abuses and violence they are suffering, partially due to the awareness raising work that many women's rights organisations have been undertaking. This is a manifestation of power and desire of the responsible authorities to act and to change the situation.

After leaving the hospital, the two women filed a complaint with the military police, which arrested the perpetrators. However, the perpetrators were released 48 hours later, because the chief of police gave a direct order.

"One of the members of the military police told us that the men had been released because one of his chiefs had received an order to release them. However, he did not know from where and who had given that order. That day, that policeman advised us to come here, to the office of national police in Fizi centre to talk with the Special Protection Unit for Women and Children," the
woman states while she looks troubled at the police officers in the room.

Impunity that national and international human rights organisations have been denouncing for years is still the main factor that undermines women´s security and the justice system in DR Congo. This leads the population to prefer, in many occasions, informal agreements instead of denouncing the crime to the police or to the judge.

"In cases of rape, the shame of publicly recognising that a woman has been raped is added to the inaction of the authorities," states the psychologist Cécile Mulolo, who Works with sexual violence victims in the Panzi hospital in Bukavu, South Kivu.

"In the case of child rapes, the agreements often involve, marrying the victim to the rapist, in a negotiation mediated by the community's traditional authority, or mwami, who, from his position of local leadership, should promote the pursuit of justice instead.

Often, mwamis and their close circle are in the role of advisers because the families pay him to find a solution that does not shame them. They pay him money, give him animals, seeds, crops, and the mwamis consent and endorse those early marriages," says a member of the civil society group of Mwenga, South Kivu territory. They are living in mining situation similar to the Fizi one.

The Special Protection Unit for Women and Children of the national police in Fizi created one year ago, states that there is an increasing number of women that denounce cases of sexual violence or gender-based violence, although there is still a big job to do.

Denouncing, getting justice and reparation is not a luxury, neither is it a favour; it is a right any person in Congo should have access to.