AP Photo/Pete Muller
Heartbroken, Berthe Mapendo Muke returned to the village she knew full of life only to find it burned to the ground. Green, mountainous and packed with soil, Masisi turned to ashes because of perpetual conflict from armed groups and ethnic militias. In the past two decades there’s been bloodshed in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Masisi has been one of the areas that has suffered the brunt of it. The moment she saw her scorched village, she knew she had to run for office.
Masisi is west of Goma in Eastern Congo. Goma has a population of one million and sits on Lake Kivu. The city provides merchants, farmers and other sellers access to a large market. But that market can be difficult to get to if roads are impassable or non-existent. A car ride in the region comes with a “Congolese massage,” – the sensation one feels driving on the rugged paths. These jagged roads due to poor infrastructure extend across the country. The streets are no delight to vendors who depend on these routes to sell goods. Muke’s platform is to improve Masisi by first building roads.
But running an election in the DRC if you’re a woman isn’t easy. First there’s the perception that women aren’t fit for office. There’s also the money issue: female candidates find it more difficult to raise funds for a successful campaign. Furthermore, many women simply don’t have the education requirement to run. So some get cut off from the process before they can even begin.
“The patriarchal system that governs life in DRC,” says activist Neema Namadamu by email, “doesn’t “believe” in women; that they are intelligent, have capacity, ability, and are participatory, viable, and functional contributors.” Namadamu, along with other women, are trying to change that mindset. Based in South Kivu, Namadamu is the founder of Maman Shujaa, an organization that amplifies women’s voices through media. “Congolese society as a whole seems to be slowly waking up,” she says, “[they’re] questioning the government, status-quo, etc.”
Madeline Andeka would agree with the sentiment that things are gradually changing for women who want to hold office. She’s one of three vice presidents of CCNOSC, a government group that represents the concerns of civil society. The organization represents 15 sectors including education, health and women’s rights. Andeka was elected to the position through delegates. She’s an advocate for proposals such as having the same number of female and male candidates for an office as well as quotas of female politicians in government. However, without implementation, these will only stay proposals.
Barriers deter women from even considering running a campaign. Many offices require at least a high school diploma, with national offices demanding the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree.
Another obstacle is perception. This can often begin in the home where women have to convince family members, such as their husband’s, that they should use personal resources to run for office, especially if the belief is she won’t win anyway. Berthe Mapendo Muke, who is running for Provincial Member of Parliament in Masisi, says in regards to convincing her husband; “At the beginning it wasn’t easy because he didn’t like the idea. I had to show him I was passionate about running. He finally accepted it but it took a bit of forcing.” This is Muke’s second time running for office.
If a woman does make it to office, her colleagues will mostly be men and she’ll work late hours. Associating with men until late hours can raise suspicion in DRC. “Women who run for office are caste as not women, but prostitutes,” says activist Namadamu.
Despite these hurdles, the fate of women in politics isn’t all doom and gloom. The 2006 presidential election included female candidates such as: Marie-Thérèse N’Landu and Wivine N’Landu (sisters), Catherine Nzuzi wa Mbombo and Justine M’Poyo Kasa-Vubu. Women in government trace back to the era of Mobutu Seso Suko, president from 1965 – 1997, who appointed women to government offices. Wivine N’Landu, for example, was dubbed General Secretary of the Department of Women’s Affairs by the leader in 1980.
Furthermore, Andeka, a vice president of CCNOSC, is excited about the possibilities for women. Through her work, she’s mentored women and encouraged them to return to school as well as to be more politically active.
Berthe Mapendo Muke, from Masisi, has three daughters. And she’s already preparing one of them for a life in politics. Her second daughter, who studies law, currently represents Muke at community events. This is Muke’s second time running for office and it remains to be seen if she’ll live out her dream of being a politician. But she’s optimistic for the time her daughter decides to run for office. “Of course for her generation,” she says, “it will be easier.”