Africa, Conflict, Women

No near end to violence as DR Congo election is disputed.

Photo by Edward Echwalu.

I am in Brussels where two days ago Congolese community had clashes with Police when they went out to demonstrate agains the president Joseph Kabila’s ‘re-election’ which has so far been rejected by international election observers and leading opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi.

The Carter Center said “we find the irregularities are significant enough to undermine the credibility of the election results.”

Again the contention is on the tallying process. Earlier the opposition had warned that the Electoral body had chosen to announce first results from Kabila’s strongholds in Katanga, a move seen by many as way to psychologically prepare the population if Kabila is finally announced as a winner. But Once again we have a Cote d’Iviore situation, both men have announced themselves as winners of the election. There are reports of government moving troops into Kinshasa and rounding up youth linked to the opposition. The situation is unpredictable and no one seems to know how this stalemate will be solved. And as tensions flare I am reminded of women of DRC, eastern DRC in particular who have endured all sorts of inhumane acts by soldiers and militias. On this day they see the little hope of having a government that can bring peace wane.

And I bring a story of Ester Munyerenkana a health worker at Panzi. I have held onto this story for quite a while. Her and other health workers daily have to deal with the end result of the broken political system and violence in Congo Continue reading

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Conflict, Uganda, Women

Child marriages in Uganda

This week I was in Kasese taking part in validation of a study soon to be released by Isis-WICCE on child marriages in Uganda. I met Sarah Biira, 19 year old who had her first child at 13 years. Kasese is a post conflict area but has largely been ignored in terms of development. It has been under conflict since 1940s and the education of a girl child is a challenge because of poverty, cultural beliefs and loss of livelihoods to war.

Here is Sarah’s story.

 

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Africa, Uganda, Uncategorized, Women

You are my child I shouldn’t be telling you this

This week I was in Lira in northern Uganda at a medical camp for women with reproductive health complications most of them sustained during the 23 year LRA war. Organisers had no idea 400 women would turn just on the the first day.

I was taking interviews from these women most of whom it was the first time they were going to see a gynecologist since the various sexual violations happened. It is always a tough position to be in. Women as old as 60 years narrating how they were raped, how no one wants to hear their story, how the community calls them all sorts of names it is beyond what i can describe.

One of the very first interviews, I was speaking to Akello (not real name) a woman who was abducted together with her co-wife. They reached the bush and were forcibly ‘married’ to one man. They both endured years of sexual violations including gang rapes. They returned 6 years ago, they didn’t know they both had HIV. Akello tells me they passed it on to their husband they had left behind and he died 3 years ago. She hasn’t really dealt with her own trauma and she blames herself for ‘killing’ her husband.

One of the women at the medical camp in Ogur Lira.

Just like in all interviews, we always take time out when the woman needs sometime pull herself together. At the end she calls me back and says “You are my child, I shouldn’t be telling you this.” I had no words to add, I just sat down for some minutes. I felt she wanted to spare me from listening, listening to horrors that many others preferred untold. We had been through it all, her life in the bush, her life after and how she hardly owns anything. How she struggles to feed and educate her 2 grand children. Of the 8 children she had, only one survived. It’s tougher to listen to a woman your mother’s or grandmother’s age talk about how she was raped. You can’t easily cry because you don’t want to derail her further. You can’t help see your mother in the faces of all these women left with almost nothing of their dignity. Yet they tell you these stories that mothers can never tell their children because they think you can help in a way.

I met Ester Abeja, she insisted that I put her face out. She was afraid that covering her face was more like what the community and government have done-ignore their plight. Like most of the women that turned up for the screening, she had complications. She is suffering from what doctors called uterine prolapse (the descent of the uterus into the vagina or beyond). In her case her uterus is hanging out. She was abducted and violated by the LRA rebels for many years.  Ester needs a surgery that would cost about 200 USD. She has had this condition for years and she is raising 5 children whom the husband abandoned. Before I spoke to her she was visibly traumatised and she told me many times she has thought of killing her husband who now has two other wives. We talked about it and she agrees that wouldn’t solve her problems, we have to concentrate on getting her the operation to remove her uterus.

Most of the women i spoke to had been abandoned by their families once they came back from the LRA. They face a high level of stigma. For those who had children with the rebels and came back with them it’s even much more difficult. Their children are called ‘Kony’s children.’

Ester Abeja.

Ester had one child with one of the rebels, she’s now about 6 years. “Do they think I wanted to be raped by these rebels? Do they think i wanted to kill my own child?” Ester wonders. She tells me another chilling story of how rebels forced her to kill her one year old baby gal by smashing her skull on a tree. Another young son was captured with her and she has no idea if he’s still alive.  She tells me she rarely sleeps and you can see it in her eyes.

I left Ester in Ogur. I am hopeful that Isis-WICCE, the organisation i worked with on this medical camp, can get money to get Ester and others the much needed surgery. There’s such lack of attention for survivors of sexual violence who are mostly women all over the LRA affected areas. And if she gets the surgery she will need support and most of these women need a lot of economic empowerment but few reach government programs.

One doctor from Lira told me, “When war ends, there’s a silent war that has to be fought.”

He said the challenge so far has been that “politicians think they will just put structures which they can use to say this is what i did during my time and ignore peoples needs.” And i don’t expect my government to get Ester the much needed help because even the health center we were at didn’t have any drugs to give to those with the simplest of the reproductive health problems.

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Africa, Conflict, Uncategorized, Women

DRC second worst place to be a woman in the world; what’s in a label?

DRC, orthographic projection.

Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday, the Trust Law which is part of the Thomas Reuters Foundation published a Danger Poll. The results were about the five top spots where it’s dangerous to be a woman in the world. Top was Afghanistan and second was Democratic Republic of Congo. The indicators were six; non-sexual violence, sexual violence, health threats, cultural or religious factors, lack of access to resources and trafficking.

When I first saw this on twitter via @VOACongoStory.  I replied: And these narratives stick!! #DRC #CongoRT @VOACongoStory poll by Trust Law .

DRC was put in that spotlight because of the war time rapes that are well documented in the Eastern DRC where different militias control different parts. The survey identified Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Pakistan, India and Somalia as the top most dangerous countries for women in 2011.

We journalists love to jump up to the terms coined to describe a place or a people-sometimes without questioning. Our challenge is always, how do you describe a place or people to another person who has never been there and make them feel as if they are there? Sometimes the terms coined might well fit the situation but as an African, I have seen these terms thrown around by those outside the continent who are so ready to speak for us in their endeavor to get more funding to ‘save’ Africans. What they never think of is these terms stick even when these situations are gone. Many have heard of the war in Congo and mass rapes from different UN resolutions and regional agreements. Our very own army – Uganda committed horrendous crimes in DRC between 1998-2003 and so did four other African armies. The challenge we are faced with in the Congo is not so much in coining terms to describe a whole country as worst place to be a woman but rather finding real interventions to end the lawlessness in DRC that allows impunity to do anything from murder to rape.

So I had a discussion with my former editor at Inter Press Service Africa Terna Gyuse on why the world is fixed on coining terms instead of embarking on real interventions. I am also aware that these narratives put on an entire country last way longer. Before we know it everyman from Congo will be looked at a rapist or even asked questions on immigration forms like, did you rape anyone during the war? How do you help a country without creating negative connotations to a whole group of people? This was Terna’s response:

Part of the problem is there are too many people paid to sit in offices and sell campaigns or places they’ve never lived. They’re always busy fighting on someone else’s behalf, they are making so much noise they have to add extra something or the other to everything just to be heard. We all do it I suppose. They are sitting there, well paid and with their fingers on the triggers of access to everything, always adopting people they like to feel are helpless.

But (sadly) we let them do it. Always lining up to be “climate witnesses” for this group or whatever the flavour is. We go to too many meetings not to say anything  but to ask for help. We Africans are so often ready to be whatever they say we are. On conflicts Oh everyone knows those rural African men are sex-mad patriarchal rapist fiends, hopped up on drugs and tradition and the power of the gun. When we get good access, we’re still busy explaining ourselves to outsiders whether its access to the media, to powerful people elsewhere or to wealthy people elsewhere.

Seeing this term coined, ‘worst place to be a woman’, I thought this can easily be passed onto Uganda, Zimbabwe, Chad, South Sudan or even Central African Republic. The term made me wonder, I thought of Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist who founded a hospital in the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu to provide free care to the victims of sexual violence. The man has worked tirelessly to provide for women who would have lost lives and provided support for their psychological recovery. Having seen firsthand the worst impact of rapes of women of his beloved country, I wondered if Dr. Mukwege would ever evoke the term ‘worst place to be a woman’ as description of  his country.

I can only hope that all the killing, looting and raping, which includes men as victims too, will be presented as part of a complex story of DRC that has got many facets. That the world shdn’t just be satisfied in having the largest UN Peacekeeping mission in Congo with little results to show. We should question whether the agreements on the exportation of the blood minerals do hold and whether the Kabila government is doing enough.  It should also be told that despite the rapes, Congo has got women and men that are making shifts in making their communities better for all and that the redemption of Congo cannot come about by just throwing around labels.

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Uganda, Uncategorized, Women

Delivering with barely anything; a story of Ugandan mother

On Wednesday March 30, I visited Buyinja Health Center IV in the newly created district of Namayingo which lies on the shores of Lake Victoria in eastern Uganda (somehow we rarely say south east). I was there to interview  Jessica Were, a woman nominated for the upcoming Women of Courage Awards hosted by Isis-WICCE and the US Embassy in Kampala. Were is a mother mentor working to bring mothers to get more involved in Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMCT) of HIV. She also works to defend the rights of women living with HIV and orphans who are always denied land.

In a new district, Buyinja is supposed to be elevated to a hospital but for now it has a few blocks with a male and female wards and a maternity wing. Jenifer Friday arrived on a boda boda (‘motorcycle taxi’). When I saw her I thought she had come for checkup but she didn’t go to the separate block where Were educates these women.  Fifteen minutes later I enter the maternity ward to catch a few shots to show Were’s working environment. I find Jenifer with a child who is barely two years crying out loud. Jenifer was also shouting as her labour pains increased.

Jessica Were tries to calm down Jenifer and also holds her one and half year old minutes before the second baby was delivered at Buyinja.

Jenifer arrived at this health center with nothing but her child on way to deliver another child. She had no clothes, no relative accompanying her. In fact her husband sent her to mother’s place at eight months.  Nurses looked around for any cloth; they work with barely anything. Sometimes they have to give their own clothes to cover babies and mothers like Jenifer. The nurse in charge tells me that there are many like Jenifer who arrive at the center with nothing. Health centers  rarely has gloves, razors and cloth, most stuff essential during delivery. I wondered how health workers keep their balance in such conditions.

Jenifer is 19 years old and she was having her second child. She delivered her first child at a traditional birth attendant’s place and after hearing Were’s message she made it here.  Were had to call relatives and they appeared after about an hour with a few clothes. Were had to tell that Jennifer needed sanitary towels or cotton and underwear.

Jenifer’s first child is from another man so she is basically lucky that her current husband would marry her and take care of both. In that position Jenifer couldn’t bargain to wait for the old child to grow before having this man’s child. She does home cores and the husband cleans boda boda for a living. I asked her what she would want to do in her life if given an opportunity; she was quiet for a while. Later she told me she wants to be a tailor.

Jenifer with minutes old baby Scovia.

Jenifer was about 17 when she got her first child and at the time she was in primary seven. Talking to her minutes after she delivered a baby girl called Scovia, I reflected on what difference education could have brought to Jenifer’s life. At 18 I was headed to university. For girls like Jenifer, their education is interrupted by so many things including poverty and general attitudes towards educating a girl child. By the time she’s 18 and in primary school, the chances of pregnancy and dropping out of school are high.

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Africa, Uncategorized, Women

People that Inspire;Leymah Gbowee

Leymah Gbowee is the founder and the Executive Director of Women Peace and Security Network Africa (Wispen-Africa). She had a great role in the Liberian Peace Process and the Women’s Leadership Board of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University awarded her the 2007 Blue Ribbon Award. Gbowee’s movement during the Liberia civil war is captured in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell. The documentary shows how the women of Liberia managed to influence talks and events that ended the reign of Charles Taylor. It shows the power of women and particularly the potential of African women in pushing to peace. I met Leymah in Johannesburg at the Man Up campaign summit. What really amazed me was her threat to undress in front of those rebel leaders that were stalling the peace efforts in Accra Ghana. She did this as these rebel leaders together with Charles Taylor were commanding thousands of child soldiers who caused mayhem in Liberia.

I spoke to Leymah about a recent article by Foreign Policy which put Liberia among 60 failed states in the world. To me this was naïve knowing the progress the country has seen under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Leymah tells me Liberia has the toughest laws on violence against women and there’s a special court to tackle sexual offenses.

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Uganda, Women

Karamoja: My work on maternal death and HIV

Lucia talking to me in Moroto, Northeastern Uganda. Rosebell Kagumire/2009

Lucia talking to me in Moroto, Northeastern Uganda. Rosebell Kagumire/2009

Lucia Lochoro is a 25-year-old mother of three. The second wife to her husband, Lochoro never went to school. Like many of her village mates in Loputuk parish, just 8 km from Moroto town, she sells firewood and water to earn a living for her family that lives in a hut, locally known as Manyatta, which she constructed herself. But Lochoro is different from many Karimojong women. She has delivered all her children in hospital in Moroto town. “We have a birth attendant in the village and she told me to come to hospital where I had to pay only 500 shillings for a book,” she said in Karimojong.

For the rest Read

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