#16Days: From Graves to Great; collective action builds feminist resistance in DRC

By Rebecca Boyce, Global Lead for Gender Equality and Social Inclusion for Cuso International and Steering Committee member of the WPSN-C

December 6th marks the fatal tragedy of the 1989 Montreal Massacre, a horrendous crime that left 14 Polytechnique students murdered and 9 injured because they were women. Shooter Marc Lépine, explicitly targeted women to express his hate for feminists and to make a point that women have no place in STEM.

This tragedy is included in the 16 days1 of activism as it allows us to remember and pay respect to those women who lost their lives. It also allows us to consider similar tragedies that have occurred since or are currently happening.

dec 6 photo 1For four years I was a gender equality advisor working in a humanitarian capacity in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), during that time it became clear to me that investing in women’s participation and rights is both important in preventing violence and conflict; and critical in promoting non-militarised solutions for sustainable peace.

When the implementation of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) was adopted women in DRC had already suffered 6 years of active conflict and some of the worst sexual and gender based violence in the world. Since the subsequent seven Security Council resolutions have been adopted women have still been exposed to all kinds of threats to peace and security. State violence linked to elections, and armed group attacks are the norm in some parts of the country at most times; violence has infiltrated the intimate sides of people’s lives in such a way that there are countless daily examples of injustice towards women. For my work I collaborated with and interviewed numerous women victims/survivors of terrible acts of violence. Listening to first hand accounts of sexual violence I sometimes wondered if death might be more welcome than living with the physical and psychological trauma, isolation, and unwanted children that follow.

dec 6 blog photo 2While driving to Uvira, in South Kivu province in June 2014, I will always remember how the driver slowed down so we could take a close look at the freshly dug graves of some 30 women and children outside of a church. The graves were mounds of dirt really, as if those who buried them were too tired to dig deeper. Mutarule, a small town had known numerous ethnic and political clashes resulting in massacres. This one targeting women and their children at their place of worship was one of many but it was deeply disturbing to me and the women’s rights groups from South Kivu. Many women took to the streets in the months that followed.

On December 6th, along with some very dynamic women’s rights groups2 and several international organisations3 we staged a public memorial to honor the women massacred (and in one case buried alive) in the towns of Kasika, Makobola, Mutarule, Shabunda, Kalehe, and Béni that year. Since the marches mentioned above, we were no longer allowed to march, nor was it safe to host an event after dark so we held a kind of funeral on a Saturday to pay our respect but also to advocate to the provincial governor and the minister for women, family and children to use all the resources available from the state, from UN agencies and international organisations to ensure women’s right to peace and security.

dec 6 blog pic 3I wish I could say this resulted in some major change but the fact is that massacres in DRC are still happening today. Just last month in Béni the level of insecurity continued to rise with a massacre leaving 20 civilians and 2 UN peacekeepers dead. There is no question that most people in DRC want peace and security, there is also no question that things are being done to put a stop to it, but with a crippled justice system, extreme poverty, and political instability the 2+ decades of war and killing cannot easily be stamped out. However, women’s rights groups there are more mobilised than ever before and it is through acts of solidarity like this one that they have continued to grow stronger together. Presidential elections are meant to happen in the foreseeable future and if the ongoing push for women’s participation in peace processes including governance continues then perhaps change is possible.

Rebecca Boyce, is a gender equality and international development specialist with 9 years of experience in Canada, Latin America and Francophone Africa. She has worked for organizations such as Cuso International, Oxfam Quebec and Oxfam Novib. She has an interest and experience with issues of violence against women and girls, sexual and reproductive health rights and women peace and security. She has a Masters in Adult Education from the University of Toronto specializing in feminist theory of community development. She is the mother of two children and currently on parental leave with her 3-month-old baby.


1. In Québec it is the 12 days of activism as they end on Dec. 6th given its local importance.

2. le caucus des femmes, l’Association des Femmes de Médias, Trois Tamis et RHA

3. International Alert, Kvinna til Kvinna, Search for Common Ground

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