Justice for Widow Victims of Conflicts and After in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Justice for Widow Victims of Conflicts and After in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Annie Matundu-Mbambi, President – WILPF/ DRC

Distinguished delegates and members of the panel:

We would like to take this opportunity to thank the planning committee for all their work in preparation for this event and also to Widows for Peace through Democracy for this great opportunity accorded to Congolese Women to be represented in this meeting.

Congolese widow victims of armed conflict in the DRC, who struggle to rebuild their lives in the continuing violence and lawlessness of its aftermath, have a desperate need for real justice in reparations, compensation, and in accessing vital services.

In our country there are no pensions for the widows, no social security to support them when they are ill, frail, old, suffering, and when they are homeless and vulnerable to violence of all kinds, including sexual violence.

In the case of DRC, the conflict and the post conflict scenario has created and cemented the linkages between war widowhood and sexual violence. As a consequence of patriarchal customary prejudices, our widows suffer from multiple stigmas, displacement, hunger, poverty, and illiteracy. They become the most vulnerable to sexual violence and encounter insurmountable cultural, administrative and legal barriers to accessing essential services and resources. They have the least access to justice, both because they are unaware of their rights (under international as well as domestic laws) and because the very justice system is often biased against them. They can attract even more violence should they attempt to make a complaint in the formal justice system.

Widows as witnesses of war crimes and crimes against humanity, murder of their husbands and children.

During the conflict, many widows have had to witness the murder of their husbands before or after they have been raped. However, although the DRC has ratified the various international legal instruments on gender equality, in particular the UN Charter, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Protocol to African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, as well as the SADAC Protocol on Gender and Development, which requires African governments to legislate to eliminate discrimination against women, including widows–there has been little implementation of these instruments at the national level. Moreover, while the 2005 constitution declares the equality between men and women in public institutions, and the government has legislated other specific gender-related laws, such as on succession, wills, intestacy, inheritance, land and property and it has been decreed that irrespective of whether the dead husband left a will, women should not be disinherited–widows continue to face considerable problems in getting their rights under the law enforced.

According to the Family Code, currently under revision, on the death of a spouse, the division of belongings takes place according to the type of settlement chosen by them at the time of their marriage. But the majority of marriages, especially in rural areas, take place without such settlements, and many of the widows were married when they were still children, and have no knowledge on what agreements were made. The laws look good on paper, but in reality most widows have never been able to benefit from them.

The feminist Ezine describes the DRC as amongst the ‘’Ten Worst Countries for Women to live in today.’’

Cases of widows being disinherited are high in DRC but unfortunately, there are no official or reliable statistics for widow victims of conflict. Women make up 52% of adult population in DRC, and some NGOS estimate that, in Eastern Congo, over 40% of the population are widows. They also report that some 60% of Congolese children and 70% of the elderly are dependent on widows for their survival, for care, shelter and food.

Widows, where possible and where they can function, depend on various CSOs and NGOs for their support, for example, for trauma counselling and literacy, training and income generation programmes as they try to rebuild their lives.

Yet, for some of the widows, their first priority is to obtain justice, and they persevere in this endeavour in spite of the threats and intimidation they face.

Alas, however, only very few cases finally come to court. The costs are so high and there are so many obstacles to bringing a case to court, that obtaining justice is well beyond the reach of most widows.

There is an urgent need to support a baseline study to obtain information on the numbers, ages, numbers of dependents, needs, roles, coping strategies, support systems, and legal status. Without this data it is impossible to calculate what the widows, so many illiterate, need; or inform and influence national and international policy-makers, donors, other iNGOs and the UN so that they can initiate their complaints. They need specific assistance in how to process their testimonies so that the perpetrators of these sexual and other crimes against women can be convicted and punished, and so deter others from committing such criminal acts. They need free legal aid and proper protection before, during, and after trials since their giving of testimonies against their rapists can make them targets for further rape, torture, and death.

Widows in our traditional societies have from time immemorial been targets for violence and abuse, even in peace time. Harmful traditional practices include forms of torture like mourning and burial rites, widow inheritance, and the custom of levirate. Therefore this post-conflict period should provide the window through which customary violence in widowhood can be revealed and stopped. This customary violence, never addressed before the conflict, and the general low status of women has helped to fuel the terrible sexual violence against women that has occurred in the context of conflict, and is condoned by militias, the army, the police and criminals.

A good practice to be shared

There are few courts in rural areas and long distances, their cost, and the lack of security deters women from going to the urban courts. In DRC we have some mobile courts going out to the villages and the places, such as the mines, where the mass rapes are taking place. But the mobile courts cannot cover the whole country; therefore many women have no hope of getting compensation or reparations. Some widows manage to flee the country and seek asylum overseas, such as Congolese Human Rights Defender Chebeya’s widow, but it is difficult for them to prove their cases as they have no documentation or forensic evidence of their rape or their torture.

What needs to be done?

What do we need to do in terms of resources, training, reporting, and changing legal systems for widows and generally ensure that perpetrators are identified, charged, convicted and punished?

It is important for us to join hands in asking the government, the donors and the NGO to come to the rescue of Widows.

The focus should be to develop a network across the region to exchange information and learn from each other’s experiences. It may lead to the inclusion of the widows to access their rights, make their voices heard, and influence policy and law reforms.

In consultation with the widows themselves, they wish for programs and projects that see them not just as the victims of war, requiring emergency relief–but as women with potential, if given appropriate support, for education and training, and for full participation in peace-building and reconciliation processes. We need as a women’s organization, to advocate for access to the justice system that should give widows protection and rights to inheritance, land and property. The use of international legal instruments like CEDAW is important for the advancement of widow’s rights.

The UNSCR 1325 offers a tool to lobby for the international community and the government to address the situation of widows and their children, analyse the impact of conflict on their lives and future and ensure that policies are developed to address their situations.

What we need to recommend

As women delegated from around the world gathered at the Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London, we need to advocate for the widows, to mobilise, to organise, to empower and to network rights with an ultimate goal of promoting peace and reconciliation in the countries affected by the war. We need to recommend that:

  • Government should ensure justice for the women and girls, tackling the culture of impunity for the perpetrators, and take into account the situation of widows in its social and development policy to be implemented.

  • The UN needs to take action to achieve the MDGs and the objectives of the Beijing Platform for Action, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, and its subsequent resolutions, including all international and regional policy networks.

  • Donors should support initiatives to reduce poverty and promote equality, development and peace. Empower the widow to participle fully in their country’s development on an equal basis and support local justice.

  • International NGOs could conduct studies to highlight the needs of widows at the national level.

  • National and local NGOs need to enable widows to create their own spaces to allow them to share and build on their knowledge as a way to empower themselves. They must fight to ensure that widows’ voices are heard by their governments, so that every widow is protected by law from discrimination, violence and abuse, and can enjoy her full human rights as an equal and valuable member of society.

  • Widows themselves need to create the network to denounce impunity and to seek justice for their rights through the courts.

In Conclusion: ‘’Justice to be achieved when millions of people collaborate on this issue ‘’

The Widows Without Rights Conference held in London, 6-7 February 2001, drew attention to extreme hardships facing widows in developing countries and in post-conflict situations. Through its declaration, delegates called on Governments and the international community to become aware of the special needs and rights of widows. Through the Summit, we call governments, donors and the international community to achieve reparation and indemnisation in bringing the widows justice, dignity, compensation and services. Their voices can be heard, and the injustices they experience both during and after conflict can be identified and addressed. Widows have the right to live life without being discriminated against because they are widows. Grant widows justice, and they can be independent and stop begging.

Thank you for attention.

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