Introduction

Since the late 1990s, the African Great Lakes Region (AGLR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in particular, have been ravaged by interstate and intrastate conflicts. Negotiations were undertaken, under the supervision of the international community and regional organizations, in order to broker agreements among the belligerent parties and establish sustainable peace. These agreements include the 1999 Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement, the 2002 Comprehensive and Inclusive Agreement on Transition in the DRC, the 2002 Pretoria Agreement (DRC and Rwanda) and Luanda Agreement (DRC and Uganda) on the withdrawal of foreign forces from the DRC, the 2008 Goma Statements of Commitments made by armed groups out of the Kivu Conference on peace, security and development, and the 2013 Addis Ababa Peace, Security, and Cooperation Framework on the DRC. However, in many instances, peacebuilding has been disrupted by the emergence of new armed groups and the re-emergence of former armed groups involved in human rights violations and mass atrocities, including crimes against humanity. This article critically examines how such peacebuilding efforts have so far failed to foster the participation of women.1Mabiala Mantuba-Ngoma ‘Les femmes et la reconstruction post-conflict en République démocratique du Congo’ (2008) 2 http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/SHS/pdf/Femmes-RDC.pdf (accessed 12 April 2021); Mireia Cano Vinas ‘Gender audit of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Region’ (October 2015) 26 <https://www.international-alert.org/sites/default/files/Gender_AuditDRC_EN_2015.pdf> (accessed 12 April 2021). It suggests a framework for addressing this gap by making a case for a gendered approach to peacebuilding. The consideration of gender in peacebuilding gained significant momentum with the adoption of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325, which  recognized the “important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peace-building.”

 

Women’s ‘substantive’ involvement in peacebuilding

Peacebuilding efforts, particularly political negotiations in the DRC, rarely consider and value the contribution women may make to the process. The low representation of women in peacebuilding is partly justified by the highly “essentialist”  approach peace negotiators adopt. For instance, only 12.5 percent of women participated in the first rounds of the Inter-Congolese Dialogue and 16 percent of women participated in negotiations leading up to the Comprehensive and Inclusive Agreement on Transition in the DRC that was subsequently signed in Pretoria, South Africa in December 2002.2Catherine Odimba, Paul Robain Namegabe & Julienne Baseke Nzabandora La participation des femmes dans le processus de paix et la prise de décision politique en République démocratique du Congo (July 2012) 29. The pervasive belief that women are vulnerable and victimized by violent conflicts prompts most peace negotiators to lay emphasis on patriarchal hierarchies, particularly the role of men. Former President Mobutu Sese Seko is quoted as saying that “until proof to the contrary, the boss in our land is the one who wears the pants [the man]. Our female citizens should also understand this, accept it with a smile, and with revolutionary submissiveness.”3C Coquery-Vidrovitch African women: a modern history (1994) 185-186 This view is reinforced by the belief that men are ‘warriors’ who are naturally predisposed to war-making, and assumes that only men can resolve conflicts in the region. According to Shelly Whitman, women delegates were sometimes instructed not to “promote gender-related issues.”4Shelly Whitman ‘Women and peace-building in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: an assessment of their role in the Inter-Congolese Dialogue’ (2006) 1 African Journal on Conflict Resolution 38. She recalls how one female delegate from civil society organizations who attempted to “promote protection of women in humanitarian situations” was condemned for “wasting time on issues that are not relevant to the [Inter-Congolese Dialogue] process.” However, during the Pretoria and Sun City negotiations, women actively participated as ad hoc experts, advised the few women negotiators directly involved in the talks,5Shelly Whitman (above) 40. and also organized awareness-raising events on some women-specific issues on the sidelines of the talks.6Shelly Whitman 40; Catherine Odimba, Paul Robain Namegabe, & Julienne Baseke Nzabandora (above) 31. Although the DRC Constitution guarantees equitable representation of women and men in public institutions,7Article 14 of the 2006 DRC Constitution. See generally, Democratic Republic of Congo ‘Report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the implementation of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights from 2008 to 2015 (11th, 12th and 13th periodic reports) and of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women from 2005 to 2015 (initial report and 1st, 2nd and 3rd periodic reports)’ (2017), para 130-131. and enjoins the state to combat discrimination against women as well as sexual violence,8Articles 14 & 15 of the 2006 DRC Constitution. additional work needs to be done to engender women’s participation in all spheres of public life. At the continental level, the DRC ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2008 to protect specific aspects of women’s rights. It also enacted the Gender Parity Act in 2015 to implement the constitutional provision on women’s equal representation, providing a broader framework for promoting women’s participation in decision-making.

Two significant peace negotiations illustrate how women were either invited for largely symbolic purposes or simply disregarded.9Mireia Cano Vinas ‘Gender audit of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Region’ (October 2015) 26 <https://www.international-alert.org/sites/default/files/Gender_AuditDRC_EN_2015.pdf> (accessed 29 March 2021); Catherine Odimba, Paul Robain Namegabe & Julienne Baseke Nzabandora, La participation des femmes dans le processus de paix et la prise de décision politique en République démocratique du Congo (July 2012) 34. Despite the vibrant transformative aspiration of the UNSCR Resolution 1325, Congolese women accounted for only 25 percent of participants in the 2008 Conference on Peace, Security and Development in North and South-Kivu.10Catherine Odimba, Paul Robain Namegabe, & Julienne Baseke Nzabandora (above) 34. While this number may suggest a relative shift from what obtained in Pretoria and Sun City, most women were apparently invited for mainly symbolic purposes. A woman participant is quoted to have said that they “were like bridesmaids who accompany the bride and groom just to enhance the party.”11Catherine Odimba, Paul Robain Namegabe, & Julienne Baseke Nzabandora (above) 34. Furthermore, the 2013 Peace, Security, and Cooperation Framework made matters worse. The process leading to its adoption did not provide for the participation of women, as women who participated were simply observers with no decision-making power.12Mireia Cano Vinas (above) 26. The Framework’s normative content had no specific provision dealing with women-related issues. In her report commissioned by International Alert and the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation to mark the 15th anniversary of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, Mireia Cano Vinas highlights the gender insensitivity of the language of the Framework. She notes that “references to displaced persons do not take into account the fact that the majority of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) are women and children; the differential impact of the conflict on women and men is not reflected; and the contributions of civil society and women’s organizations to peacebuilding are not portrayed either.”13Mireia Cano Vinas ‘Gender audit of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Region’ (October 2015) 26 <https://www.international-alert.org/sites/default/files/Gender_AuditDRC_EN_2015.pdf> (accessed 29 March 2021). In reaction to their marginalization in peacebuilding initiatives such as the Inter-Congolese Dialogue, women’s rights activists have organized activities that may indirectly influence the outcome of peace negotiations. These usually take the form of peaceful rallies, formal and informal meetings with key political stakeholders, and the establishment of ad hoc committees to follow up on the negotiations.14Catherine Odimba, Paul Robain Namegabe, & Julienne Baseke Nzabandora (above) 33.

The gender gap in peacebuilding simply reflects the hostile socio-cultural environment within which most women live and work in the DRC. It is a context characterized by the perception that women are weak, inferior, and only deserve support and assistance. A 2015 study on masculinities in DRC describes how “men are imbued with the characteristics that are associated with a hegemonic view of masculinity. These characteristics are exerted by men not only on women, but also on other men who are in ‘subordinate’ or less powerful positions.”15Mireia Cano Vinas (n 3 above) 23. This explains why the state has taken few practical steps to promote the participation of women in the political sphere despite some positive developments in the legal framework as highlighted above. During the presidential elections in 2006, there were four female candidates, none in 2011,16Alternative report to the Committee Against Discrimination ‘Rapport sur les violences contre les femmes au Nord et Sud-Kivu, en République Démocratique du Congo’ <https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/COD/INT_CEDAW_NGO_COD_13432_F.pdf> Page 5 and only one female candidate in 2018. Women accounted for only 8.4 percent (42 women) of 500 elected members of the National Assembly in 2006, whilst 4.6 percent were elected the same year in the 108-seat Senate. At the provincial level, only 43 women were elected as members of the 11 provincial assemblies in a total of 632 seats in 2006. Women’s representation in the National Assembly did not improve much in 2018 as compared with the Senate. Currently, the National Assembly has a total of 50 women Members of Parliament (10 percent) whilst the Senate quadrupled women’s representation from five to 20 Senators (20 percent). The government also reflects gender inequity in the way the cabinet has been constituted since the return to democratic rule in 2006. However, the newly appointed cabinet (April 2021) is 27 percent female (15 women out of 56) against 17 percent (12 female ministers out of 67) in the previous government. It can be surmised that historical marginalization, cultural stereotypes, discrimination fueled by religious practices, and the objectification of women account for the marginalization of women in official peace negotiations as well as political representation and decision-making roles.

 

The need and the framework for transformation

The persistent lack of attention to the need for a gender-sensitive approach to peacebuilding in the DRC calls for an interrogation of societal norms which ascribe superiority to men over women. Male peace negotiators have demonstrated that if left alone, they are unlikely to consider issues relevant to women, except from a victim-centered and essentialist perspective.17Catherine Odimba, Paul Robain Namegabe, & Julienne Baseke Nzabandora (above) 9. There are several elements that a gendered approach to peacebuilding in the DRC must take on board. Firstly, the inability of peacebuilding efforts to question “structural inequalities” and “powers dynamics” in the DRC with its patriarchal tendencies has meant that pre-conflict gender hierarchies have been transferred to the post-conflict era. Emphasis should be placed on the need for a deeper transformation of gender relations by empowering and mainstreaming women’s participation in all aspects of post-conflict peace, security, and development. Women should no longer play second fiddle to men.

Secondly, an equitable gendered approach must recognize the limitations of legal instruments (constitutions, legislation, peace agreements, frameworks, etc.) in fostering women’s participation in peacebuilding. It must invest in extra-legal awareness-raising and lobbying with key actors, including top-level decision-makers at the national and regional levels. This must be done to ensure that the adoption of emancipatory legislation can translate into effective participation of women in peacebuilding at various levels.

Thirdly, a gendered approach must recognize that the political and cultural background of communities involved in peace processes may create disparities in the way women are involved in or affected by conflicts as well as the extent to which they may participate in peacebuilding processes. While it can seem rational to apply models that have worked elsewhere, overlooking cultural specificities and identities may lead to superficial engagement as such impositions tend to be perceived and resisted as a form of cultural imperialism. Lastly, with the diversity and the size of the DRC comes the need to ensure that a gendered approach is not seen as a one-size-fits-all solution. It must reflect the experience, diversity, and aspirations of women at various levels of society. What can be considered appropriate for rural women might not be so for urban women. The same logic applies to women living in the eastern DRC as what might be appropriate for them might not be the case for those in the western DRC. In the same regard, what might be appropriate for educated and elite women may not be appropriate for the non-educated; or for women that belong to ethnic groups that have reportedly been involved in or believed to be fueling conflicts. This boils down to the demand for serious, deeper, meaningful, direct, and continuous engagement with women in order to understand the participatory model that suits their needs, cultural practices, and history and with the broader Congolese political and social community to facilitate women’s participation.

The National Human Rights Commission as a quasi-judicial protector of human rights in the DRC can start engaging with the government and other institutions to promote the appointment of women to key executive positions. It can rely on global and regional human rights bodies, like the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and other national human rights institutions to provide technical support to government agencies that need to devise sound policies on the involvement of women. A serious awareness-raising campaign on the rights of women and on the importance of involving women in peacebuilding processes must be conducted. Much sensitization is needed, particularly in rural areas targeting local chiefs and religious leaders. Political parties can take on this role, as the 2004 law governing their organization and functioning obliges them to engage in civic education. This should be done internally, by ensuring that political parties are prepared to train their female members to take on political roles without fear, and externally, by engaging the government and the community on how to increase women’s participation and representation. At the educational level, the content of the primary and secondary school curriculum must be transformed to reflect gender equality standards. It is remarkable that some universities have started to open up their curriculum to subjects related to gender, human rights, among others. The Ministry of Primary, Secondary, and Technical Education, the Ministry of Human Rights, the Ministry of Higher Education, and scholars working on gender-related issues should take the lead in redrafting the curriculum to make it gender-sensitive. This can be the beginning of creating a culture of women’s rights protection and countering the patriarchal values and attitudes young men and women are exposed to at an early age.

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