Digital technology, a vector for peace in the Eastern DRC?

By Bernardin SEBAHIRE

Researcher at ISDR/Bukavu

Eastern DRC has experienced various conflicts over the past 25 years. A particularly violent time for women in South Kivu, which is well remembered and talked about in terms of their security, is the period between 2003-2004.

This period was characterized by massive internal displacement, rape, looting and abduction. Many families were separated, husbands murdered, and properties looted. Women remember it as a painful time, a traumatic moment in their lives, full of anguish and uncertainty. During this period, there was a very high number of rapes committed against young girls and elderly women and, in isolated cases, against boys and men. As was the case in the late 1990s with the rise of armed conflict in eastern DR Congo, rape also became a weapon of war between 2003-2004.

The resurgence of this violence can be explained by the discrimination that women have suffered and continue to suffer (historically), with or without armed conflict; but also by the widespread impunity that reigns for all crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. Women’s organizations denounce the fact that this culture of impunity has caused, once the war in South Kivu is over, the case of rape and domestic violence has increased, this time perpetrated by civilian men, not in arms.

When women talk about insecurity in South Kivu, they talk about economic security, physical security, security in the home, cultural security, legal security and political security. Physical insecurity is the most reported, with women living in the home at the top of the list, always in a context of economic insecurity and discrimination. This insecurity is most evident in the places where women are present on a daily basis: the home, the fields, the market, the springs or water points and the school.

Systematic discrimination against women in the community continues to be one of the causes of multiple forms of violence and humiliation in the home. Economic violence is a clear example, highly concentrated on the right to inheritance or access to land. The violation of these rights leaves women, especially widows, without the means to support their children. Sometimes they even lose their homes, which are taken over by the in-laws once the husband dies.

FEMME AU FONE as a tool for complaints, information and political pressure

Telecommunications are exceptional tools to shorten distances and to become a loudspeaker capable of alerting about the dangers and the level of insecurity that the local populations live; otherwise these situations are destined to be forgotten.

It was in this context that Femme au Fone was born in 2012, an original project of the WorldCom- LoLaMora Foundation (WCLM) and Radio Maendeleo, a regional community radio station located in Bukavu, South Kivu province.

It was a system that, woven on three axes -communication, information and political pressure- offers the women of Radio Maendeleo’s listeners’ clubs a tool to inform about security incidents through the sending of SMS, thus setting in motion an information system that allows the radio station’s team to put pressure on and question the authorities.

The project highlighted the underlying structural discrimination against women in Congolese society, and after several months of struggle, the women decided to take the lead by incorporating two local organizations: the Association des Femmes des Médias du Sud-Kivu (Association of Media Women of South Kivu) and the Réseau des Organisations des Femmes en Synergie des Femmes pour la Paix et la Réconciliation (Network of Women’s Synergy Organizations for Peace and Reconciliation).

Survivors break the silence

In this way, the new system appeals to women directly. They decide what they want to say, how they want to say it, and what their messages mean. Femme au fone offers them a system (software) and a platform (a radio station and a team of professionals at the service of FAF). These messages in the form of SMS arrive to a computer programmed to classify them according to urgency, topics or geographical areas, based on certain key words. A team of professionals coordinated by Radio Maendeleo and WCLM implements FAF. It is the team that receives the SMS, verifies their content, completes the information, produces radio programs based on these topics and takes care of the alerts and technical aspects of the system.

The radio is thus the channel and spokesperson for the messages and alerts that the population sends to the system. The FAF team verifies and analyzes the information with the objective of alerting local or provincial authorities, NGOs and other organizations or institutions responsible for responding to the problems. In addition, SMS or messages also become a source of information to produce programs on the radio and women’s concerns and proposals become topics of debate. Since January 2014, Radio Maendeleo and Afem-SK offer listeners every week all the news that arrives from FAF.

Femme au fone, is nothing more than a computer that is the main tool of the project. It is the system that receives the various telephone messages or SMS from FAF correspondents based in Bukavu and in the various territories of the province of South Kivu.

When digital technology contributes to the spirit of peace!

Rachel Rugarabura is a journalist assigned to the Femme au phone project. This media professional affirms that 8 years after the start of this project, her organization continues to receive alerts from victims of sexual violence. For Rachel, digital technology contributes to the promotion of peace because from the sensitization messages broadcasted on the media and other social networks, women living in hard-to-reach areas can make their voices heard through cell phones. Through this communication channel, perpetrators are identified and brought to justice.