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A Call to Consciousness

How Subjection Harms Congolese Women

by Medine Moussounga Keener | July 31, 2007

In many ways, women in the Republic of Congo are like others everywhere: they have emotional, physical, spiritual, and intellectual desires and ambitions, filled with hopes for a better life. Too often, however, their hopes go unfulfilled when their needs and desires are subjected to the selfish and sinful intent of others. This article is about the suffering of women in the Republic of Congo, my native country. I will begin by describing the many problems faced by Congolese women, relate these problems to issues faced by women everywhere, and conclude with recommendations for the future.

U.S. residents are more acquainted with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, former Zaire). But there are two Congos: the DRC and the Republic of Congo (ROC) or Congo-Brazzaville. Despite its 342,000 square kilometers, Congo-Brazzaville has only about three million inhabitants. Congo-Brazzaville has endured two recent civil wars; the latest, from 1997 to 2000, left most of the southern regions and Brazzaville, the capital, severely damaged.

Women and poverty

Congo-Brazzaville is now among the heavily indebted poor countries in the world. In the 1980s, it was considered a middleincome country, as it is one of sub-Saharan Africa’s leading oil producers. But, because of war, high public debt, and corruption among leaders, the country has become very poor. About 70 percent of the Congolese population lives in poverty, surviving on about $1.50 worth of food for a whole family per day.

The public infrastructure is very precarious. Power outages are frequent in major cities, and villages have almost no electricity. In many parts of the country, the water supply is not purified enough to protect people from diseases, and typhoid fever has become very common. Power outages likewise lead to a shortage of drinkable water. During the rainy season, roads deteriorate; ruts are made by trucks and cars passing through. Mosquitoes and bacteria breed in the big puddles.

Other problems connected to poverty are infant mortality, malnutrition, poor housing, unhygienic conditions, irregular salaries and pension arrears, and high unemployment. Poor schooling conditions make it hard for children to concentrate. Fifty to seventy-five children share one classroom in public schools, especially in villages. In some parts of the country, children must bring their own chairs, and school supplies are very rare commodities.

Women are heavily affected by poverty. In order to survive, some of them, willingly or not, become involved in different kinds of endangering behaviors and conditions.

Prostitution and the sexual abuse of women

Sexual licentiousness is one of the consequences of poverty. I am not talking about the institutionalized system of prostitution, but a different kind of rampant prostitution, which has become very prevalent in the Congo.

For many women, it starts as a means of survival, exchanging sexual favors for food, rent, clothing, or schooling. I remember young women in Brazzaville who were forced into prostitution because the parents could no longer provide for them. Parents would ask a high school-age daughter to find a rich boyfriend (usually a married man) who could supply her needs.

Another phenomenon of prostitution is that of “second bureau,” in which a young (usually educated) woman will agree to become a concubine to a wealthy married man who will pay for her studies, rent an apartment for her, and provide a home for her and her children (if they have any). Of course, these young women do not see themselves as prostitutes, because they belong to one person. When I used to call frantically on the Lord to give me a husband, a friend who was the concubine of a wealthy man chided me, “Are you waiting for a husband to fall from heaven for you? Follow my example.” But offering sexual favors to meet one’s needs is also a form of prostitution.

Martha1 was a very beautiful and intelligent young woman. While we attended the university in Brazzaville, life was so difficult that we needed God’s grace to keep studying and stay pure. We depended on a very meager scholarship (about 60 U.S. dollars per month). So, Martha agreed to become a “second bureau” for a relatively rich man. He rented a nice apartment for them and provided for most of her needs. Over the years, they had two children, but never formalized their relationship. Then, when this man wanted to get married, he chose another woman over Martha and took both of their children with him. Martha found herself alone, poor, and used.

Compromised health

Another consequence of poverty is poor health. Sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, are on the rise, and women suffer the most when AIDS is spread through marital unfaithfulness and rape. The use of condoms is now widespread, but it is an added expense to the strained family budget. It seems more urgent to spend money on a meal than on a condom. AIDS has a stigma to it, and people who get it are ashamed even to talk about it.

Honie was one of the youth I taught in Sunday school back in Congo. She was a beautiful and intelligent young Christian woman struggling with the issue of celibacy. She had a good job as a teacher and wanted to get married, but had not found the right person yet. At the end of war, I visited Honie, who was reported to be sick a lot. I learned later that she had contracted AIDS from a boyfriend. Honie suffered a lot and died about two years later.

When some people discover that they have AIDS, they will do everything possible to help others. Philly Bongoley Lutaaya (1951–1989), an icon of Ugandan music, was the first prominent person in Uganda to proclaim publicly that he was HIV-positive. He used his talent to raise an awareness of the disease and to try to save lives. But, by contrast, Mubamba, a very wealthy man in Dolisie (my hometown), used his money to spread HIV. Mubamba had enough money to afford treatment and live a little better and longer. Meanwhile, he started to engage in unprotected sexual activities with as many women as possible in exchange for money or other favors. Eventually, women heard about him, but most did not know him by sight. We also learned that Mubamba was using condoms with holes in them to deceive women. And, after the sexual act, he would tell his victims, “This money is for your burial; my real name is Mubamba.” When he died, and people learned about it through his obituary on the radio, there was a big shout of joy in all of Dolisie, like Proverbs 11:10b states: “When the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.”

Another result of poverty is a lack of priority on breast cancer, which is on the rise. There is no screening, and the treatment is very expensive. When my friend Toto was diagnosed with breast cancer, she did not have enough money to afford the airplane ticket for Yaounde (Cameroon) and the whole treatment. So, the doctors in Congo tried to help her as best as they knew. Toto died a slow and painful death. She did not have any pain killer drugs. The only thing a lot of us could do was cry with her and pray to God to either heal her or take her home.

Abuse of women

Five major areas where women are particularly abused are in the home, at school, at work, at church, and in war.

Domestic abuse is carried out in many ways. Verbal abuse— threats and insults—is part of some women’s daily lives. Verbal insults are hurled at them and their families for small mistakes. Before the war (and before my much later marriage to Craig), I was married to a Congolese man with a Ph.D. This man used to insult me, calling me “whore,” “stupid,” and the like. I used to be so upset that I would start crying. Then, one day, I realized that I was not what he was saying. So I responded with calmness that I was not a whore since I was a virgin when he married me, and that I was not stupid, because I too have a Ph.D. My answer angered him so much that he strangled me, although I was already five months pregnant. I was saved because someone called my name from the street. As he was leaving the house, I heard him call out, “I will know that I have hurt you when you will find yourself in the hospital with one arm or leg missing.”

Many husbands inflict emotional abuse by withholding sex, love, sympathy, and understanding from their spouses. Some of them do not even remember hearing their husbands say, “I love you.” Many stay in the marriage because a divorced woman is seen as bad and mainly because of their children. Many women live in fear of contracting AIDS or any other sexually transmitted disease from a husband’s unfaithfulness.

Baywen has been married for more than fifteen years now to her husband. They have four children. Baywen’s husband is what we call “l’homme des femmes,” that is, a man who has countless concubines. Baywen stays in the marriage because of her children (whom the husband would keep) and because somehow she still loves her husband. Her husband does not take care of her; instead, he gives money and gifts to all of his concubines. Baywen’s husband does not beat her, but he withdraws love and sex as a “punishment.” Baywen also lives in fear of getting AIDS, but she cannot leave her children to these other women, because she does not trust them to take care of her children. Her only hope is Christ.

Sexual violence affects women emotionally, physically, and mentally. When a girl or young woman is raped, the family usually forces her to marry her rapist and avoid the shame in the family. For such a woman, sexual relations with her husband will always be a source of torment and humiliation. The notion of rape in a married couple does not really exist in Congo. If a man rapes his wife and she complains (which she usually would not do), people will smile and say, “He paid the bride price, so she belongs to him.”

Physical mistreatment is part of everyday life for some women. Julia, one of my closest friends, is a strong Christian woman married to a military man. They have three children. Julia was beaten very often, and many times she would run out of the house half naked to save her life. Since she earns more money than her husband, he did not help take care of the house, food, clothing, or children’s school.

One day, Julia’s husband threw her and her children out of the house to lead his life with his many concubines. Julia had stayed in the marriage because of the children, but finally started a divorce proceeding. But, the court refused to grant her the divorce because the husband wouldn’t grant it. Finally, he came with a group of army men and took the children by force. Because the children were being badly mistreated by their father, Julia came back to live with the husband and take care of her children. Her only hope and strength were in the Lord. The weekly beatings continued until one day Julia escaped from the house all bruised and ran to her husband’s uncle. This time, the uncle, Julia’s uncles, friends, and neighbors scolded Julia’s husband for his mistreatment of his wife and children. He felt ashamed of his behavior and has made some significant changes. I praise God for helping my friend Julia, but I know that her situation needs more improvement and prayers.

Abuse in school

Most girls and young women suffer some sort of sexual harassment in school that can lead to sexual abuse. It seems that some Congolese teachers believe that a woman is not intelligent enough to succeed by herself; she needs help. The way they help her is to grant her a higher grade in exchange for sexual favors.

Missie and I were in the same junior high school when she was raped. She was a beautiful and hardworking teenager. One day, a group of boys attacked her and raped her. She found herself in the hospital for a number of days. To my knowledge, those boys were not punished, and people used to make fun of Missie, even though she was the victim. Many boys used to glory in the fact that they had raped girls, especially intelligent and beautiful ones.

Many students called the University of Brazzaville (l’universite Marien Ngouabi) “the empire of evil.” Justine, a first-year student, did well in her courses. But one professor did not hand back her papers. During the final exams, that professor whispered in her ears that, if she did not go to his house to retrieve her grades, she would not pass the course. Now, she knew what that meant: he wanted to have sex with her. She went and prayed with her brothers in Christ and asked the Lord for his help. She went to the professor’s house and told him that, if he loved her, she would be willing to marry him, but he had to go and see her parents first. The professor was taken aback and gave her the grades.

One of my professors in the University of Brazzaville wanted to “talk” with me for a long time, but I never gave him the opportunity. So, he warned me that he would be expecting me for the oral exam—i.e., to fail me. Happily, every time I was scheduled for the oral exam, my name was on the list for the other professor. Another professor gave me bad grades for homework and quizzes, but he was amazed to realize that I got the best grade for the final. Our names did not show on the final exam; we had numbers, and I changed my handwriting so that he would not recognize it. That is how I passed the course.

Teresa was not as fortunate. Her philosophy professor, who called himself Machiavel, failed her in her exams two years in a row, because she would not agree to sleep with him. Because of that, she was held back in her studies and finished her undergraduate studies after many years. It was hard for her to find a good job.

Many young women with whom we went to school who did what the professors asked instead of valuing their own intelligence and hard work never succeeded in life. Some never finished high school or college. And those who made it through by exchanging sexual favors for grades often ended up being lazy and negligent employees.

Abuse at work

Many women are sexually abused in their workplaces. Mourai got a job with an apparently kind employer. The next day, the boss scolded her like a child when she made mistakes. The other ladies informed her that she was being prepared by the boss’s behavior (a mixture of kindness and roughness) to sleep with him, because all the women who were working in the enterprise had done it. On the third day, she quit the job.

Although things are changing in a positive way, some men still believe that women are inferior and cannot accomplish a better job than men. Men do not want to receive orders from a woman; therefore, when a woman is the boss, the men neglect their work or do not obey her orders.

Abuse in church

The church is supposed to be a haven for God’s children, but, unfortunately, that is not always the case. Some of the abuse I have described as happening in school settings also happens in churches. Women are taken advantage of by those who are in charge and by others. In youth groups and choirs, young women are lured into sexual activities by men who seek to satisfy their appetites.

During my time as a war refugee, I taught Sunday school and taught teenage girls to keep themselves pure. One day, one of them told me that the other teacher told them that, if they did not have sex, they would get sick. I told her that, when I got married, I was thirty-three years old and a virgin. I explained that she will not be sick for keeping herself pure. I could see relief in her eyes and joy in her face.

A young mother in that church confided to me that the pastor had promised her that, if she agreed to have sex with him, she would be spiritually blessed and things would improve between her and her husband. I was able to tell her that the Bible states otherwise and exhorted her to stay away from that pastor.

Other women have experienced rape. Rose had a beautiful voice and loved to sing in the church choir. She was slender and of a beautifully dark complexion. After evening choir practice, young women were entrusted to brothers in Christ to walk them home. That day, Rose was in the care of a brother who “liked her.” Since Rose wanted to obey the Lord and remain pure, this brother had never gotten the opportunity to sleep with her. As the brother was walking Rose home, he stopped by his own home to “pick up something.” He asked Rose to come in his room, and Rose declined. But he insisted, promising that it would take only a moment. The children were playing outside and his mother was cooking, so Rose reasoned that it would be safe. As soon as Rose stepped in the room, however, he locked the door and started to rape her. Rose screamed with all her might; the mother banged at the door for him to open, but he did not. When Rose told me her story, I could not believe it, because she was a vibrant and joyful Christian. Wherever did she get that strength? She found healing in Christ through forgiveness.

Women in war

From 1999 to 2000, I found myself a war refugee. The plight of people in war-torn areas is a very miserable one. But the predicament of women is even more fragile by the very fact that they are subjected to sexual exploitation and abuse.

Because of the chaos caused by fighting, many people run from their homes to places of “safety.” Most of the time, people think that their flight is only temporary, and that after a few days or a week they will be able to come back to their beloved homes. Most people take only a few things and a little food to subsist for a few days. Then days turn into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years.

When we left our home in January 1999, pushing my father in a wheelbarrow, we thought that we would have to flee only for a few days, but it was twenty months before we would come back to our home, finding it in ruins. We walked miles and miles, from forest to villages and villages to forest, trying to find a safe place. Children as young as three or four walked alongside adults. I had to carry my sixteen-month-old toddler on my back and a few things on my head. Walking was a rough exercise for all, especially for pregnant women. We slept in abandoned schools, hospitals, or churches on dirt floors. Hygienic conditions are very precarious, especially for women. During war, there is no privacy, no pads for menstruation, and no real soap to clean oneself.

In these conditions of insecurity and flight, women are responsible for the care of children. They fetch food to protect husbands, brothers, and sons who are tracked down to be killed or dragged into the militia. I remember the day my brother and I walked for miles to buy food at a market. I did not want him to go alone for fear of him being shot even by our own men, and he did not want me going alone for fear of me being raped. So we walked together, putting our lives in God’s hand. Our few coins could not buy all the things we needed, but God heard our prayer for protection.

Many women and girls sell themselves for food (sardines, cookies), soap, money, and passports. Adele craved to eat some sardines. So when a militiaman approached her to give her something to eat in exchange for sex, she agreed. She got her sardines, but also a venereal disease. In fact, she confided in tears that, when the young man was naked, she saw that his penis was full of wounds and pus. She could not go back on her words, especially because his gun was right there, and the militiamen were on drugs. In exchange for something nicer to eat that day, she got a sexual disease that could have led to her death.

People use rape systematically as a weapon to humiliate their enemies. It dehumanizes women and humiliates them to the fullest degree. Women are raped in front of their children, parents, husbands, and others, and later may be disowned by parents, abandoned by their husbands, and left sick with HIV/AIDS.

We were in a small village called Moubotsi, resting before we started walking again. A young woman originally from the north (but living long in the south) was being hidden, because our people, from the south, were at war with the northerners. This young woman was innocent. She happened to be with our group, because she was separated from her family. Then word got out that we had an “infiltrater.” One night, a group of young southern militia came to the village and raped that woman badly. We were all powerless in front of their guns and noise. The pain and cries of that young lady kept ringing in our ears for days.

Women in countries like the tiny nation of the Republic of Congo have been overlooked. Many Americans do not even know that this country exists. But, the local and international church can help address the plight of women in such countries.

Editor’s note: The following are a few of the ways the church can help:

  • Becoming educated on the global plight of women, especially in war zones
  • Praying for us regularly and as specifically as possible
  • Working locally through such organizations as the Association of Evangelicals in Africa, International Council of the World Evangelical Fellowship, World Council of Churches, Lausanne network, etc., to encourage us to create a joint ecclesiastical and governmental campaign to raise the status of women to that of a national treasure to be cherished, nurtured, and defended, as in teaching boys curricula built on such slogans as, “Our women are our greatest national resource—protect them as a first priority”
  • Raising national consciousness through the churches’ encouraging community disapproval of abuse, since the extended family is our greatest local resource
  • Implementing systemic, systematic marriage counseling with more careful vetting procedures for prospective husbands, including identifying and reeducating potential spouse abusers, before one performs a marriage
  • Actively calling for reform in schools, churches, businesses, sacred organizations, and secular private and governmental agencies, implementing effective sexual harassment policies with mandatory fines and jail terms for convicted abusers
  • Reforming the courts by eliminating the practice of granting divorce only with the husband’s consent
  • Requesting United Nations monitoring of war practices that violate “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Proclaimed by the United Nations on 10 December 1948” and other such globally ratified documents in regard to the treatment of non-combatant women
  • Creating special interest groups and lobbies among Christians to focus long-term on eliminating abuse of women throughout the society by working to ensure each of these reforms is continuing to take place

Notes

  1. All names have been changed for the sake of privacy.
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