With Protection International’s support, women human rights defenders unite to form a network and strengthen their protection
On 12 March 2021, 44 women human rights defenders (WHRDs) who operate in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), a region was shaken by conflict and violence from armed forces, created a network to join their efforts towards greater protection and improving the safety of their work environment.
The network is being established within an incredibly difficult context. Women defenders are increasingly becoming targets of death threats, physical and sexual violence or stigmatisation. In addition, women continue to struggle against high rates of impunity for these serious human rights violations.
“We used to work in a scattered way and, therefore, our appeals did not get the expected results that we desired. For example, women human rights defenders in Beni, a city in the north of North Kivu, face several difficulties, such as arbitrary arrests, abductions, murders and other forms of abuse. When we report these incidents individually, often our alerts fail to be heard and rarely reach further than the local level. With this network, we think we will be able to raise alerts to higher-level authorities and receive more appropriate responses,” explains Ms Isabelle Namwezi, a legal consultant at the Organisation Solidarité Féminine pour la Paix et le Développement Intégral (SOFEPADI).
In 2020, Protection International recorded 17 cases of threats against women human rights defenders in the DR Congo. This figure may seem low in comparison to the 140 reported alerts concerning threats against men human rights defenders. However, this does not indicate that women experience lower levels of risk. Rather, it exposes the fact that existing alert management mechanisms are ineffective and problematically gender-blind. Many women, for fear of being ostracised, prefer to remain silent rather than denouncing the violations of which they are victims.
“Today, Beni’s inhabitants have serious problems related to insecurity, which requires the urgent intervention of both Congolese authorities and the international community. We hope that the network will help us relay the information to the highest level and eventually allow us to enjoy peace at last,” says Ms Isabelle Namwezi.
In 2018, Protection International conducted a baseline study on the protection needs of women human rights defenders. Its findings provided insights into their specific needs as well as the risks they face in their daily work. The study also revealed an impressive gap between the reality of various risks faced by WHRDs and the support from existing protection mechanisms. Moreover, the study revealed the existence of three stigmatisation trends against those women who dare to speak out, including:
- Stigmatisation of WHRDs working on issues that may be considered sensitive – such as support for victims of sexual violence, sexual and reproductive rights, and women’s right to have access to land.
- The use of sexual and gender stereotypes for the purpose of discrimination – for example, women defenders suffer from humiliation and stigmatisation in local communities due to social and cultural beliefs and traditions.
- The use or threat of sexual violence. Besides the security challenges faced by all defenders in North and South Kivu, women defenders also experience gender-based violence, whether directly related to their work as defenders or not. Thus, domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment are common problems for women defenders. Moreover, political-administrative authorities and security forces are sometimes the sources of the threats that affect WHRDs.
“Women interviewed during the study stressed the need to work together, raise their voices and join their efforts to improve their protection and security as women defenders,” said Françoise Timbiri, Protection Officer and Gender Officer at Protection International in DR Congo. “In addition to threats, intimidation and rejection, WHRDs are also exposed to risk of sexual harassment or assault during the course of their work. We are therefore accompanying them and strengthening their capacities so that they can continue their work, and, at the same time, reduce the risks they are exposed to.”
The establishment of this network is part of the project “Capacity Building and Protection of Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) to contribute to civil crisis prevention, conflict resolution and peacebuilding in DR Congo”, an initiative funded by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the ZIVIK programme. Implemented by Protection International since 2018, this programme directly involves more than 480 women human rights defenders from 44 civil society organisations in the provinces of North and South Kivu.
“These women are now able to accumulate their capacities. When you work in a scattered or isolated manner, your impact is not always as grand. What we are setting up is a small group but, little by little, other provinces will join. There will surely be a multiplier effect. We are now present in North and South Kivu only, so not all regions are part of the network. However, the network is inclusive in nature and other organisations working in areas where women human rights defenders are active can therefore approach the network in order to work together for the empowerment and protection of human rights. We are not excluding men from joining us either. There is no man without a woman and vice versa,” said Ms. Charlotte Kashamura, a networking expert and consultant who guided the WHRDs in setting up the protection network called the “Coalition of Women Human Rights Defenders of Kivu”.
The coalition, which aims to prevent rights violations, ensure the protection of women defenders and carry out advocacy actions for the enhancement and improvement of their working conditions, works in three levels: national mediation, provincial offices and local branches. Each body has a management team. At the local level, the coalition will work closely with the Local Community Protection Committees (LCPCs), informal structures that Protection International has set up to strengthen collective protection in the most remote areas.
Ahead of the formal launch of the Coalition of Women Human Rights Defenders of Kivu, the group hosted a workshop to train participants on how to define the network’s medium-term action plan as well as to propose key activities. They discussed how to best design an alert mechanism and a monitoring plan for protection cases within the network, and how to draft and adopt the network’s charter.
The network was set up during the commemoration of the International Women’s Day on 8 March 2021. The network was set up in Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province, and intends to extend its reach to cover the whole of the DR Congo, requiring the support of national, regional and international partners.
“While we welcome the creation of this network, we must not forget the challenges that await these women in their work. This is why we call on all partners to act to support this network so that it becomes an effective and sustainable tool for protection,” concluded Françoise Timbiri.