International Women’s Day 2021: Taking Action for Equality in the DRC

International Women’s Day 2021: Taking Action for Equality in the DRC

The following is an interview with Neema Walters Namadamu, Founder of Hero Women Rising and partner of Global Outreach Doctors. It has been edited for clarity.

#ChooseToChallenge is the theme for International Women’s Day 2021. To commemorate this special occasion, Airlink is celebrating the achievements of a remarkable woman who is taking action for equality in one of the most challenging places to be a woman today: The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 

Women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have suffereda great deal over the past several decades, Committee Experts from the United Nations said in a 2019 report. In 2019 alone, 1,409 cases of conflict-related sexual violence were documented.

We invite you to read the story of Neema Walters Namadamu, founder of Hero Women Rising and partner of Global Outreach Doctors, one of Airlink’s nonprofit partners. Compelled by her vision for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the change she seeks, Neema has built a movement of passionate women advocating for a better future: “We have had enough. We call upon our global sisterhood to take action. We will not be quiet until real peace is upon us.”

Airlink has supported passenger travel for Neema and additional Global Outreach Doctors volunteers traveling to The Democratic Republic of Congo to support ongoing programs that assist survivors of gender-based violence and sexual assault. 

What inspired you to work on this issue?

The short answer is that I am one of them – I am one of the marginalized, stigmatized, struggling women giving everything I have to make a way for myself, my family, and my community – as said in an article I once wrote: “to make heaven for my daughter in a place called hell.”

I was born in a very remote mountain area of east Congo. At two years of age I got polio and so crawled around on the ground until I was strong enough to figure out how to pull myself up on a stick to pole vault myself through life. I used that stick for over 30 years, not getting my first set of crutches until as chief advisor to the nation’s minister of gender and family, I accompanied my minister on a mission to South Africa. There I got my first set of crutches.

As a little girl I would overhear extended family and friends of my parents telling them to shut me away, that I was a shame to my family, obviously cursed by God. But my Mom loved me with a big love. She knew that I wouldn’t have a way to survive among my own people. She would raise goats or try and sell produce from her field to get some small money so that I could go to school and maybe find my own way in life. For up there, a girl must be married. It is every girl’s goal. Women can’t own anything. There is no inheritance for women. All decisions are made for you; when you marry, who you marry, etc., etc. But no one would marry me. I was not marriage material.

When I was in the 3rd grade, my mom sent me away with a loving uncle to live with his family in a small city. There I was able to make my own way to school (barefoot and by stick of course). But I ended up being the first handicapped girl from my tribe to graduate university. As mentioned, I rose to a high level of service in my government, but felt I wasn’t able to make any significant impact. 

So I went back to my province and started working among women with disabilities. But in Congo, all women suffer a deep marginalization. Women with disabilities and indigenous women are the marginalized of the marginalized, but all women suffer from a highly patriarchal society. I decided to open our programs up to all women.

We started by going online, introducing women to a global sisterhood through an online forum called World Pulse. We were blogging, telling our stories, encouraging and strengthening one another. World Pulse asked us what we wanted to call ourselves. The women shouted out: “Maman Shujaa,” which means Hero Women. They were feeling alive, invigorated, emboldened!

We started advocating and posted an online petition for peace, requesting the women in President Obama’s White House to influence the president to appoint a U.S. Special Envoy to Congo to create a lasting peace solution – one that had women sitting at the table negotiating our future. We got over 100,000 signatures in a short time which got us an invitation to the White House to meet President Obama’s National Security Council. A few months later, Secretary Kerry appointed a U.S. Special Envoy. 

We began to feel the power in our voices. For sure, we were and still are, only mosquitos, but if there is even one mosquito in the room, it will get everyone’s attention.

This was our beginning, the beginning of the Maman Shujaa movement to lift all women, to encourage, enable and empower all women to be who they were born to be. Especially our daughters. We want education for our daughters. We want them to be able to choose their own way and have the capacity to contribute all that’s within them to create the world we know is so wanting to manifest. Just our part. We just want all women to have the opportunity and capacity to be the gift they were born to be for themselves, their families, their communities, and their world. For all our sakes.

What are the conditions like in DRC and what strategies have you found more effective to support women in that context?

As I indicated before, education is paramount. In essence, Polio saved me from a life of ignorance and slavery to archaic cultural paradigms. Because I contracted Polio, my illiterate Mom, my life professor, always made sure I had school fees. It’s not just about language and math skills, it’s about liberation, personal development, critical thinking and sense making. We have a lot of programs, but the real magic is when we are together doing whatever program we’re doing. Then we talk, we share, inspire and encourage each other. We are each other’s strength, courage, and confidence.

One of the most impactful programs is our Keep Girls in School program. It’s so simple and yet so world-changing. We sent some of our young Maman Shujaa leaders to Days for Girls (DfG) Enterprise Training school in Kampala Uganda. They came back and started training other young women to make washable reusable sani-pad kits that last 3 years. There is no other feminine hygiene solution in the remote mountain area where I was born, which has helped to perpetuate the cultural paradigm of early and forced marriage of adolescent girls. 

When girls start their periods at 13 or 14 years of age, they start missing a week of school. They start falling behind in their studies and dad notices and so starts shopping her to be married so he can get his dowry of 5 or more cows. But when we started the Keep Girls in School program, we also went on the radio, to the markets, to women’s groups at churches (where men are always watching and listening) and started talking about menstruation. Instead of it being taboo, a secret that women had to keep, we started broadcasting it and promoting the fact that it was a blessing, a sign of womanhood, and that every father and husband should be providing a DfG sani-pad kit for his wife and adolescent daughters. It was revolutionary in the beginning. Even women were trying to keep us quiet. But now thousands and thousands of girls and their moms have feminine hygiene kits, and more importantly, thousands and thousands of girls are staying in school and graduating, and going on to university to presence the future they hold in their hearts.

Neema’s current project in the DRC is possible thanks to flight tickets secured through the generosity of United Airlines Miles on a Mission donors to Airlink. To support high-impact programs for humanitarian and disaster response like this, consider donating your United Airlines MileagePlus frequent flyer miles to Airlink here

Picture of Bethany Holland

Bethany Holland

Bethany Holland is the Humanitarian Programs Manager at Airlink. Her role includes managing and expanding Airlink's NGO partnerships, building Airlink's capacity in disaster-prone regions around the world, and coordinating the mobilization of passengers and cargo in support of humanitarian emergencies around the world.

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