The city of Goma, capital of the North Kivu region in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is still sadly known today for the numerous acts of violence to which the population is subjected. The conflicts between rebel groups and between armed groups and the Congolese army, the permanent instability also characterized by corruption and injustice, make life in this part of Central Africa very hard for civil society, activists and women, especially when they are fighting for their rights. Goma is also the birthplace and hometown of Justine Masika Bihamba.
On several occasions, Justine has been threatened with arrest or death because of her commitment. On the evening of 18 September 2007, six armed soldiers broke into her house where her six children, aged between 5 and 24, were living. They attacked the oldest daughter and tried to rape the youngest. Justine returned to the house just as the attack was taking place. The military, one of whom she identified, all escaped. Nine days later Justine filed a complaint, but the attackers were never arrested or brought to trial. The daughters later fled abroad for their own safety.
Justine was awarded the Tulipe Prize for Human Rights by the Dutch government in 2008 and the Pax Christi International Peace Prize in 2009. She has since received many other awards.
I met Justine in 2008 in Brussels where she had come for a series of meetings with international political authorities. We are speaking on the phone from Goma.
You are one of the bravest women’s rights activists I know, can you explain what you do?
I am a human rights activist and I have been working for the promotion of women’s rights since 1990 when I helped to found the Synergie des femmes pour les victimes de violence sexuelle. which today is part of a network of 35 associations committed to the protection of women’s rights. In particular, I deal with cases of women who are victims of sexual violence.
What is the context in which you live and work?
In the context of war and impunity in North Kivu, where women’s rights are constantly violated. In times of peace, women are victims of customs and traditions that consider them inferior to men. In times of war and conflict, a women’s body becomes a “battlefield”, since when there have been clashes between rebel groups or between rebel groups and the Congolese army, it is women who are the first to be attacked and suffer violence and rape. Through our work, we want to achieve the goal of raising women’s awareness so that they can know that they have rights that are recognized by national, regional and international laws and treaties. We want women to become aware of the role they can and must play in society and to know and use tools to claim their rights.
In concrete terms, what kind of activities do you carry out?
We organize many activities. For illiterate women, who unfortunately are numerous in our region, awareness raising is done through images instead of texts. We go to houses, we do door-to-door work, we go to churches, we try to ally ourselves with the village leaders because religious communities and traditional leaders have enormous power and play a very important role in the communities. They are highly respected and therefore listened to. When we succeed in raising their awareness, there is a change in their villages and women are not only more often listened to but also they can find space to be actors for change.
Are you a believer? Are you part of a community?
Yes, I am a believer. I grew up as a member of the Baptist Church that my grandparents and great-grandparents attended. Today, however, because of my personal spiritual growth, I belong to a Pentecostal Church. I am not only a believer, I am a faithful practitioner. Every morning I start my day praying. First at home and then in church, where I walk to attend the community prayers. I consider this morning walk a blessing for the spirit but also for my health, so I do it with joy and a sense of responsibility. In Goma there are enormous security problems for the general population and especially for people like me, human rights activists, because we are the target of attacks by malicious people, representatives of rebel groups and, unfortunately, also representatives of the government and of strong powers. However, I feel that I have been called by God who wanted me for this mission. My faith makes me stronger because I know that God protects me. I have been threatened many times and without my faith, I do not believe that I would have always come out safe and sound.
How do you think the Church can be called upon to promote women’s rights?
I am fortunate because the two pastors in my community are not only in favor of promoting women’s rights but, since one of them is a jurist by formation, they help me a lot. For example, when we organize training sessions on women’s leadership, on women’s participation in the political life of the Country, the two pastors support and help us. They are committed and convinced of the need to play an active role in raising awareness and informing women about their rights.
Do you have any contacts, or collaborations, with the Catholic Church?
Synergie works in collaboration with all religious denominations and therefore also with the Catholic Church. We collaborate with the Justice and Peace Commission on human rights issues. In Goma there is also a very dynamic group of Catholic women with whom we work constantly. In short, we promote a message that goes beyond individual religious denominations because women’s rights are universal and in our case, union is strength like never before.
by Donatella Rostagno