Lulu Mitshabu (right) with Vumiliya, a Congolese victim of sexual violence who found renewed hope and a new mission through Mitshabu and Caritas Australia’s programs. Photo by: Caritas Australia

In 2013, the U.N. Human Development Report ranked the Democratic Republic of the Congo 186th out of 187 nations on the Gender Inequality Index.

This was just the most recent in the long list of failures against women and girls in the Congo.

In 2008, a report to the U.N. General Assembly noted that violence against women and girls in the Congo were “deep-seated cultural norms” and social structures limited the ability for women to participate in business, property rights, politics and peace. In 2010, the Congo was called the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. And in 2011 it was estimated that 48 women are raped in the Congo every hour.

Further, the Caritas Australia report, “Fearless Voices: Speaking up for Peace, Inequality and Justice in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” illustrates the violence women and girls in the Congo face on a daily basis and allows for their voices to be heard.

Lulu Mitshabu knows the hardships women face in the Congo very well.

The Africa programs coordinator for Caritas Australia, Mitshabu was born and raised in what was then known as Zaire. Now living in Australia with her family, she continues to try to bring about change for women in this dangerous country.

She spoke to Devex about her journey and what inspires her work.

A new beginning

Mitshabu had been working at a women’s rights organization in the Congo at a time when the country was under a dictatorship, and “any woman who spoke up for their rights was an enemy of the state.”

To prevent persecution, the then-pregnant Mitshabu fled with her young daughters, almost 25 years ago, to Zambia.

Having children in tow made the journey even more dangerous — they were constantly vulnerable to attacks. But Zambia did not provide the refuge expected. Although Mitshabu’s husband was able to follow her and her daughters to the camp, the family was forced to leave only after three months. The family couldn’t go back to the Congo, where death is a certainty. A chance meeting with a first secretary from the Australian High Commission gave them the miracle they were hoping for.

“It was a life-changing event,” Mitshabu told Devex. “I believe what happened was for a purpose. From that day I was determined that I would fight for other women in that situation, or contribute to the cause.”

The many conflicts that have ravaged the Congo have claimed about 6 million lives since 1996, with victims dying from warfare, starvation and disease. Millions more were displaced. Mitshabu and her family were among the lucky ones, starting a new life in Australia that provided safety and security.

Now a mother of six girls, her new life also provides Mitshabu the opportunity to speak up for the women remaining in the Congo.

Returning to the Congo

Ten years after settling in Australia, Mitshabu made her first return visit to the Congo as part of her role with Caritas Australia. Keeping a low profile, she was able to see the impact protracted conflict was having on women and girls.

“Things had gone from bad to worse,” she said. “Rape was being used as a tactic of war and age didn’t matter. These girls had no prospect of a future — once violated, they were damaged goods and disowned by their families.”

Camps for internally displaced people often become home for these women.

For Mitshabu, the return visit reinforced the important role Caritas Australia — which has been working in the country for the past 15 years — and other nongovernmental organizations play in the Congo. Although a peace deal was signed in 2003, eastern Congo remains dangerous, where armed rebel groups continue to bring death, rape and displacement.

In North Kivu, a province in eastern Congo, Caritas has set up “listening houses” to support women most at risk. Here, women are given medical support, counseling, training to establish their own businesses and support with the education of their children.

“Our program gives women … dignity,” Mitshabu said. “It is a place for them to feel at home.”

It is not just important to support women after they have been attacked, but to also bring about social change to avoid this occurring in the first place. And this is difficult in a society where attitudes toward women have become entrenched.

Data collection programs, training local doctors and working with men in the community are all activities that aim to achieve this social change.

“Working with young men to change attitudes is very important,” Mitshabu said. “Some young men don’t go to school. They are taken by the army when they are 8 or 9 and return at about 18. They don’t know any different.”

Maintaining determination

Although Mitshabu spends most of her time in Australia, where she coordinates Caritas’ Congo programs remotely, she does take annual visits to her former home. During her visit in November, an 11-year-old girl was attacked and raped. It was a vicious act on a child that is far too common in the Congo.

“It just showed to me that we still have a lot of work to do,” she said. “In particular, work is needed with the justice system.”

Over a six-month period in 2013, staff of the programs Mitshabu coordinated in the Congo managed 10 rape cases. Of these, five are being prosecuted and the rest were sent to higher courts for prosecution.

The listening houses, meanwhile, have so far supported over 3,000 women.

Three years ago, Mitshabu met a 13-year-old girl named Elizabeth who had been raped and attacked, left pregnant and had no family support. But with support from Caritas programs, Elizabeth’s life turned around in just two years.

“She was talking, smiling and had confidence,” Mitshabu said. “She had her own business and was happy that she could contribute. She even felt respected within the community.”

But so much more is needed.

“There are thousands of women still needing support,” she stressed.

How to help

According to Mitshabu, there are many ways governments, businesses and individuals can prevent gender-based violence.

Governments worldwide can condemn the sexual violence, urge for greater accountability of perpetrators and support global efforts for disarmaments.

Mining industries operating in the Congo can become champions for human rights, be open and transparent in business activities, and support the development of communities.

And individuals can show their support for women of the Congo and call on their governments to ensure sustainable development in the conflict-torn country.

“Every little bit we can do for them counts,” Mitshabu concluded.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a freelance data journalist based in Canberra, Australia. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane and online through Lisa has recently been awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.