Common Cause the platform of Congolese women fighting for peace and justice for women in the Congo and the diaspora, marked the launch of their Manchester branch on Saturday 30th March 2013 with a ‘Special Congolese Women’s Day’.
A peace vigil was held in Piccadilly Gardens Manchester during the day, denouncing the war and violence against women in the Congo.
Since 1996 approximately six million people have been killed in the Congo, over two million internally displaced, hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped, women buried alive, thousands of children kidnapped, enslaved to serve as child soldiers and sex slaves. A barbaric war and multiple destabilising strategies used to control a land rich in minerals resources. Congolese women are asking for an end to war and the right to live and raise their children in dignity in their country.
Throughout the day, there was one thing that remained constant – the singing.
At the vigil, women sang songs of solidarity and resistance. They chanted:
“So, so, so, solidarité avec toutes les femmes du monde entier!”
“So, so, so solidarity with women all around the world”.
The protest songs drew the attention of the public, songs in French, English, Lingala, Tshiluba and Kikongo – all of which are national languages in Congo bar English. The songs varied from modern church songs to traditional Congolese folk.After the vigil, women from Common Cause branches across the UK, Congolese organisations from overseas and the local community, convened to address the ongoing affairs relating to the war and calling for further action.
Marie Claire Faray- (Research Scientist of infectious diseases) highlighted the different forms of violence against women and girls and their impact.
Even before girls are in the womb pre conceptions of families’, hoping for male children over females are in play.
Cultural beliefs stigmatising menstruation, in addition to heavy periods for some, result in girls feeling they cannot attend school during menses, which negatively affect education and long term prospect for girls.
Abuse of girls in families’ i.e. the normalised mistreatment of daughter in laws by female family members, vilification of widows after a husband’s death, resulting in women being left ostracised and economically crippled.
A lack of funding for much needed women’s health services when funding is available for arms, show how women are suffering on multiple levels.
Marie Claire expressed the need for change and the importance of understanding US and UK politics in order to act accordingly. Common Cause started in the Congo and now works with women in France, Belgium, US and Africa. Producing memorandums against the Balkanisation of the Congo they have written to the US and will continue to write memorandums until peace is won.
Mama Kongosi spoke about rapes occurring in Goma camps and how people are remaining silent about them. She shared how a woman found a group of dead people in a house murdered by M23 and informed colleagues in the UK, but how nothing had been reported in the media. Then spoke of a woman who has been traumatised after seeing a shot pregnant woman and her dead baby.Her message clear that women need to stand up and act.
Dada Stella Kitoga (FIRAFEC: Inter – Regional Forum of Congolese women for International Development) reminded the audience how rape is not acceptable in Congolese tradition, how men in her tribe were not killed as punishment, because they did not believe in killing, instead rapists were banished to the jungle. She stated how in contrast, rape is now occurring every day and how the Congo has been named the ‘Rape Capital of the World’ by the West, and so it is more important than ever to remember true Congolese culture.
The deeper significance of song became apparent when Dada Stella – a drama teacher by profession, recited a poem written in honour of the fifteen women who were tortured and buried alive in Mwenga for speaking out about the rapes.
During the recital Dada Stella intermittently stopped mid flow and began singing. Her voice almost breaking and her head hung low as though to hide tears from the audience, her song resonating melancholy, pain and anguish.
Later that evening, Dada Stella shared her experience of her visit back to her native Mwenga shortly after the atrocities occurred. She spoke about the state of terror in the area; the fear instilled in the people which was the desired result of the horrific act. She went on to reveal that the man who headed the torture and burial of living women is now an army general. Thus, her earlier singing was her way of mourning in front of strangers.
Mama Marie Louise told how the Congo no longer belongs to the Congolese anymore; shops are run by foreigners and foreign investment. The only thing left for the Congolese is hope.
She spoke about Argentina during the dictatorship, how students that marched in protest were kidnapped and killed by order of the President. The mothers of the murdered students would stand outside the government building and demand the government give them back their children. The same mothers then self organised and led to the end of the government.
Mama Marie Louise stated that, when women rise change happens, so Congolese women must rise. There will be no peace until Congolese women make change happen. Integration and pooling skills be they environmental or political is the way forward.
One woman shared that women who have been raped and killed are being used for cosmetic testing.
Another woman shared how she invests in women in the Congo by buying pigs which breed and feed women long term, and how she regularly puts some of her salary towards investing in more.
Women spoke of the importance of integration into the UK, solidarity with other groups and organisations and the participation of Congolese women in activism, whilst maintaining the moral values of Congolese culture to positively influencing the present and future generations. They shared how the UK government out in the Congo are giving aid to doctors and donating money but how the main problem remains unresolved. How money is needed to help rape survivors and stopping rape. They are now working to make the rapes in the Congo part of the Geneva Convention.
Shana Mongwana of Africa Lives screened a film she edited from mobile phone footage when women travelled from the UK to the Congo for the International Women’s march in 2010, called ‘From London to Bukavu’.
Maman Nzita, the chair of the Manchester branch, closed the event by thanking everyone who supported and attended the event individually then lead the women into song.
To culminate the event the women and girls stood together hand in hand and sang songs of victory and resistance:
“tango yangoyo, tango yangoyo,
likambo na likambo na tango ya ngo eh, oyo tango ya Congo eh!”
A song expressing that there is a time for everything, and now is the time for Congo’s glory. As the songs flowed, the women’s voices grew louder and more impassioned and cheers of ‘ingeta’ meaning ‘so be it’ filled the room. The women sang at the hope of a new dawn for Congo.