March 8, 2019
Unsung Heroes: Sanu Nani Magar
When I was little, I was my father’s princess. He used to work in politics, but he died when I turned 13. As an orphan, I was displaced to a town called Goma in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Goma is infamous for the number of wars it has been through and for the high rate of sexual and gender-based violence that has been occurring there for many years. The community there rejected me because I look like I am from a different ethnic group.
During the war, when I was 17, I became a teenage mother. The stigma concerning my situation was very bad. There was a lot of pressure and a lot of pain. Despite it all, I had to be a mother to my daughter even though I was still a child myself.
I went back to school in Kinshasa and got my high school diploma, but people continued to reject me because of my appearance so my uncle sent me to South Africa where I lived as a refugee for 10 years.
I endured intense psychological suffering, and on top of that had to live as a refugee vulnerable to xenophobia and racism. It was at this time in my life where I promised that I would become a “Voice for the Voiceless”.
I began advocating on behalf of women and girls living in refugee reception centers. They had no access to basic services – even though they were available free of charge – because they could not speak the language, they couldn’t pay bribes, or didn’t have the resources to fight for their access.
Over time, I heard about women in my home country who needed me.
I wanted to return home and speak out for the women and girls who were living with the violence and suffering that I had endured but been fortunate enough to escape.
I wanted to see how I could make a difference and help women improve their status, increase their wellbeing, and to empower them economically.
In the DRC, especially in the East, wars are often territorial as well as political. Amid the many power struggles at play, women represent a sort of goldmine because to some extent they represent the pride of the men they are with. One way to humiliate an enemy and take control of their territory is by taking “their” women and girls and systematically raping them. Violence is used to indicate victory over the enemy camp. Children are turned into war machines, killing machines. It is systematic.
In the DRC, we have Dr. Denis Mukwege who was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. To us, this was an acknowledgement that our suffering is a reality. That somebody who is so committed to alleviating women’s pain can be recognized in such a way is a real comfort.
A woman who has been raped feels like her life is over. It is such an appalling experience. She gets by, often for the people around her, but not for herself. If she has children or family, she keeps going for them.
We live in a patriarchal society with lots of “values” that are used to define what women should be, how we should behave, and what is expected of us. A raped woman carries all the blame – even though she is the victim.
Sexual and reproductive health is an issue for women who have endured violence, but in the DRC there are often barriers in accessing it. There are not many hospitals that can treat complications such as fistulas. There is also a lack of information and the rate of illiteracy is very high. In addition, many materials are written in French instead of local languages, so even when the information is available, often women cannot read it because it is not in a language they speak.
As Congolese women campaigning for our rights, our priority is getting women’s voices heard and fostering their participation in society. Female participation in parliament has never exceeded 15%.
Our country has a legal system to protect us and on paper we have a lot of rights, but ensuring that they’re protected and upheld is another story. Not many women work in the judiciary system, so getting laws concerning women enforced is problematic. We’re trying to provide information so that women can know their rights and defend them.
The more decision-makers that are conscious of these issues, the more we can hope to gradually change mentalities. Stigma and discrimination result from a person’s mindset.
I hope that one day, sexual violence in the DRC will be recognized as a genocide.