Political parties in the Democratic Republic of Congo are struggling to recruit women into their ranks to run for parliament, despite a legal requirement to do so and a belief that greater numbers of female parliamentarians are critical to advancing women's rights.
“We are going around meeting women, telling them to join our political party to represent us in the next parliamentary polls, but most of them are afraid,” Prince Bushiri, leader of the Citizen Alliance for Public Safety. “When we ask them what they fear, some will tell you, ‘I don't like politics', others will tell you, ‘I have to ask my husband's opinion first'.”
Bushiri said only one out of 10 women invited to join the party accepted the invitation.
The Electoral Commission began registering candidates to contest for seats on 4 August. Parties that fail to persuade women to run for office on their ticket will be violating an electoral law designed to take gender representation into account when compiling a list of candidates. Small parties are especially concerned about their ability to comply.
But parties will not be barred from elections if they fail to put forward an equal number of men and women. The law aimed to have between 30 and 35 percent of various national offices filled by women by 2011, and 47.5 percent by 2015. According to a 2010 study by Peace Women, women occupy only 7.2 percent of the higher positions in government and parliament. The proportion of female parliamentarians is highest in Kinshasa (17 percent) and lowest in Equateur province (5 percent) and the eastern province of South Kivu (3 percent).
Many believe that an increase in the number of women in politics is crucial for the advancement of women's rights in the country. Women in the DRC bear the brunt of ongoing conflict. A study prepared by the American Journal of Public Health in May 2011 found that 1.8 million women in the country had been raped during their lifetime, with 48 rapes recorded every hour during the study period from 2006 to 2007.
“Having more women in politics could reduce the suffering that women endure in areas marred by conflicts,” Gertrude Kitembo, DRC's former Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, told IRIN.
“A few years ago, President [Joseph] Kabila announced a zero tolerance policy against impunity, including crimes related to sexual violence, but it hasn't changed anything so far besides a few cases of soldiers being prosecuted for violating women in eastern Congo. When there are more women in politics, especially positioned at the top of various institutions, they will use their influence to ensure that all those who commit sexual violence against women are brought to justice.”
Faida Mwangilwa, former Minister of Gender, says that an increase in the number of women in politics is the next logical step from the role women already play in Congolese society. “Since the economic crisis hit the DR Congo in 1980s, women have been at the frontline supporting their households with daily bread, supporting their children's expenses for education, supporting healthcare while their husbands are receiving low wages,” she said. “They achieve this by doing small businesses in cities and agriculture in the villages. These women should be in politics as they have proved that they can play a greater role in change in the country based on their experience in households.”
However, women face a number of obstacles in accessing political power. Those who have taken leading roles in speaking out against violence against women have faced repercussions.
“A number of women have been raped for denouncing violence against women,” Justine Masika, coordinator of the organization, Synergies of Female Victims of Sexual Violence.
“A woman in our organization was raped on three occasions. The aggressors said that she was speaking out against violence against women when she herself had never been raped and that is why she should also be raped.”
Such incidences force women to be more cautious in the work they do. Educational barriers are also a hindrance; the new electoral law requires a candidate for a parliamentary seat to have a three-year university degree, which means many women do not meet the requirements.
“We are fighting for male-female parity by telling women that it will happen only if women inside political parties access parliament where they can defend women's rights,” said Biselenge Lifaita, leader of the NGO Women in Reconstruction for the Development of the Congo, told IRIN. “They get excited about the idea but they tell us that they don't have the education and resources to do so.”
Lifaita said they were planning to campaign for expansion of women's education so that in coming years more female candidates would be eligible to run for office.