We have written before about the strength of the women of Inga. These women have seen two Congo River dams disrupt their lives: Many have lost their homes, lands and villages, and watched as electricity from the first two Inga dams flowed to the rest of the country while leaving them in the dark. They have used their ingenuity, intelligence and resourcefulness to survive and even thrive, feeding their families and fighting to educate their children.
These women are strong. And Blandine Bonianga, Executive Director of the Congolese NGO Femmes Solidaires (FESO), is on their side.
FESO is a coalition of 24 different women’s groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo that leads local initiatives around water, hygiene, sanitation, health, nutrition and food security. And the group has increasingly advocated for equal energy access in DRC, recognizing that women are deeply impacted by DRC’s energy crisis, and must play a starring role in solving it. Because development projects can disproportionately impact women, FESO works to ensure that women’s rights to the land and river are respected.
We asked Ms. Bonianga to tell us how she became a women’s rights activist, and to share her advice for budding activists on International Women’s Day.
How did you come to the work you do now?
In 1998 in Katana, a small village in South Kivu where I lived with my husband, I witnessed the painful living conditions of women in rural areas. While men spent most of their time drinking traditional beer (kasiksi) and smoking the pipe, a [rural] woman would take up the responsibilities of breadwinner and caregiver, fending for her household. She traveled long distances to fetch water, while carrying her child on the back, and still had to come back home and prepare food for her household.
On top of that, these women were also subject to violence, including rape with impunity.
I became actively involved at a church in Katana that worked with women on these issues before creating the association of Social and Economic Rights of Congolese Women (FECODES) when I moved back to the city.
How did you first get involved with FESO?
In 2015, I was invited to attend a meeting on restructuring a synergy of women; the previous director of the organization had resigned to pursue personal interests. Given my initiatives and commitment to women’s causes, I was invited by the Board of Directors to serve as the Executive Director. At the same time, FECODES joined the synergy.
What sort of work do you do at FESO?
As the Executive Director, I manage the organization on a daily basis with some guidance from the Board of Directors. I represent the organization, and I also get involved in field activities, even in the most remote rural areas.
I understand you recently started a movement called “Solidarité des Femmes sur le Fleuve Congo.” Tell us about that.
Solidarity of Women on the Congo River, “SOFLECO” in acronym, is a newly-formed association of rural women on the banks of the Congo River and its tributaries.
There is a strong relationship between riverine communities and rivers. Any modification of watersheds can have positive or negative impacts on neighboring communities. Mega-projects such as the Inga dams have not necessarily taken into account the impact of these dams on people’s lives. For example, how water pollution (degradation of quality of water) affects the living conditions of the local population.
The role of FESO in this area has been to inform women on developments of the Inga 3 Dam project, and to discuss issues related to the dam such as impacts on livelihoods, etc. We want women to be aware of all the issues related to the dam and to learn to care for themselves.
This led to the creation of SOFLECO, an independent association, to whom we provide technical and financial support. With SOFLECO we hope to address the following issue:
➢ the struggle of women on the banks of the Congo River and its tributaries.
And achieve the following outcomes:
➢ the empowerment of women
➢ the protection of the Congo River and rights of communities that depend on them.
Do women have a unique relationship to rivers in DRC?
Yes, women and all the other people of equatorial Africa have a special relationship with rivers. Our lives are connected to rivers one way or another through traditional irrigation, soil fertility, food (especially fish), navigation and religion.
The disappearance of Congolese rivers would cause the disappearance of at least 60% of local communities. That’s why it is in our own interests to protect this national heritage: the Congo River.
Why is this movement so important right now?
Local and international NGOs support this work, but we cannot replace rural people in the struggle for their rights. Local communities know the issues they are facing: They understand the threats that their environment is facing, issues that are not only ecological and geographical but also economic and cultural.
FESO’s mission is to raise awareness, and then support the victims of human rights violations, building them up and encouraging them to take ownership of the struggle.
What do you hope to achieve?
We want, through this movement, to strengthen rural people – in particular to encourage women to become activists, to be engaged in the struggle for their rights.
What advice would you give to young women considering becoming activists?
I will ask them 1) to learn to work in groups 2) to train, as much as possible, in matters related to activism 3) to build their character, because activism is not an easy job; it requires you to fight against established systems, and you will meet a lot of resistance along the way.
Did you have a strong relationship with a river growing up?
I come from the Equateur province in DRC, and in my village near the river, we live and depend on the river. My grandmother was a fisherman, so my attachment to the river is natural.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by the Christian values of equality, and also by women activists such as Angela Davis and Rosalyn Park, and most recently by Angela Merkel.