Never touch a woman, not even with a rose petal.
“Damaging women is like killing the roots of the tree.”
Who: Mathilde Muhindo
What: Former parliamentarian who runs a project to promote equality in villages in South Kivu.
When Mathilde arrived in the villages as a newly qualified social educator to teach pregnant woman, she was shocked. There was no equality, no dialogue – and countless misconceptions.
“The women were always carrying things. They carried one child on their back and one in their womb, and they carried heavy burdens on their head, and at the same time they did all the work. When they had finished they carried the fruits of their labour to their master who made all the decisions. They lived under worse conditions than slaves. The men never helped them, they spent all their time on their ‘hobbies’.”
Mathilde Muhindo sniffs disdainfully.
She herself had been to good schools. In the villages she saw girls whose only duty was to marry, as young as possible, have lots of children – and carry.
“It was so unfair! A society like that doesn’t create any opportunities for development.”
Together with the Catholic Church, she started a project aimed at “educating women to prepare them for political, economic and social change.”
“A woman who knows her worth educates her children, and the foundations of democracy are laid in families where everyone listens to everyone else.”
What do you do when you arrive at a new village?
“We begin by gathering together the oldest people in the village, women and men. We ask them to tell us about the history of the village, and the needs of the inhabitants. The needs are the same everywhere: to improve the harvests, bring in more money, be able to afford to send the children to school, keep the children and adults healthy.
“Then we invite all the villagers to a discussion on how the work is performed. Who does what, when and how?
In every village we find 30 couples who are prepared to attempt to reach their goals, hand in hand, and become role models.
“The third step is to gather one group with only women, and one with only men. We ask them to draw their working tasks on a clock, hour by hour, for a normal day. Finally we bring the men and women together and put the clocks side by side. The uneven distribution of work is very obvious. They start to talk about things they’ve never discussed before.
“We ask them: Do you think this model will help you to achieve your goals? If the woman does all the work, even if she’s pregnant or sick, will that give you better harvests and money for school fees? Will the children stay healthy? In every village we find 30 couples who are prepared to attempt to reach their goals, hand in hand, and become role models.”
So far 900 couples and 100 single women have joined the project. They have doubled or trebled the agricultural productivity. Some families, who previously only had one meal a day, can now eat twice. The children go to school.
“And the violence has declined. Unfortunately, I can’t say that the abuse has ceased, but fewer women are being subjected to it.”
At the same time, Mathilde Muhindo has been working with support for rape victims.
“At first we couldn’t understand what was happening. Why was the war focused on women? Now we understand more. Attacking the women was a way of wiping out an entire community, of cutting off the tree’s roots. The soldiers know the women’s strength and their capacity for work. The man is dependent on the woman and is broken down when he is unable to defend her.”
The violence has declined. Unfortunately, I can’t say that the abuse has ceased, but fewer women are being subjected to it.
Mathilde Muhindo was a member of the Congolese transitional parliament for two years, as a representative for the civilian society in South Kivu. Then she gave up her place, voluntarily. Her defection is in itself strange, considering all the extra income, some legal some rather more dubious, which goes with political responsibilities in Congo. Her reasons for returning to her village project were even more unusual:
“I left because I was angry and disillusioned. Women’s issues were never given any importance in the parliament. I had been given the mandate of my people, but I couldn’t live up to their expectations and dreams. The government was not doing enough to put an end to the violence against women.
“I’m more useful here at home.”
In 2006, Mathilde Muhindo and other women activists pushed through a new law on violence against women in Congo. She believes it is a good law, and an important one, but that there is still a great deal that needs to be done to make it work.
“You can’t go out into the villages and say “The law says this and this – so follow it!” No, you have to go through the new law point by point, and start a discussion. Is it a good thing that girls are given away in marriage when they are 15? Is the body ready to bear a child at such a young age? What about the girls’ education? What effect does it have on the children if their mothers have a good education?
“Equality pays. A society where women and men are given equal opportunities is a better society. That’s what we talk about.”
Equality pays. A society where women and men are given equal opportunities is a better society. That’s what we talk about.
Mathilde Muhindo herself has never married. Now she is 60 and people have stopped asking. She works hard and has been able to help her brothers and sisters to have good educations.
“I could have done with a man who was like my father, but there are very few of them around.”
She goes out onto the balcony to be photographed and points over the rooftops towards a tented town.
“That’s where our soldiers live. In inadequate tents, with their big families, and almost no pay. How can we hope to achieve order as long as the state doesn’t function? I don’t believe the armed violence has decreased. Sadly. And the big problem is the exemption from punishment.”
Maternal deaths: Just over 900 deaths per l00,000 births ****
Number of children/woman: 5.2 (2011)
Abortion legislation: Abortion is forbidden, even when the mother’s life is at risk.
Law against rape within marriage: No
Violence against women in close relationships: 1.8 million women will be raped during their lifetime. Congo is the second most dangerous country in the world for a woman to live in.