The Negative Impact of Culture
on the Women of D.R. Congo
By Mugisho Theophile, Safe World's correspondent on the ground in D.R.Congo
Culture, the sum of total of the learned behavior of a group of people, is generally considered to be the tradition of those people, which is transmitted from generation to generation.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), there are many tribes and therefore, many different cultures and traditions. Some of these are systems of knowledge that are shared by a relatively large group of people.
The women of the DRC have learned – and endured - the preservation of traditions and cultures, despite their negative impact on women and girls.
The Magister Dixit - 'The teacher has said it'
If you travel in some of the remote villages of the DRC, you will be surprised. In an exchange of ideas I had with some female members of COFAPRI from the village of Mushego, Eastern DRC, we learned that the women have no say when the husband has made a decision.
It does not matter whether or not his thinking is right or wrong, the magister dixit (the teacher has said it).
Men are the culture and tradition makers, and the protectors of what they create.
In this vein, there are things that are abominable, but they are always kept alive even as they hinder development. An example would be that the women of these remote areas are forbidden to eat some foods.
Despite the fact that food is necessary for our health, these village women cannot eat eggs, or drink milk, because these are called taboo foods for women and girls.
This expresses the greediness of the men who set such traditions. And this has been well-observed by the women and girls of the DRC villages through many generations up to the present day.
Communication is also part of culture. Or lack thereof. In the homes of these remote villages, the wife and her daughter have no word. No say in decisions.
This context of segregation is deepened further and culminates in refusing to allow the girl child to attend school.
The reason given is that the girl child is not as intelligent as the boy.
They argue that schooling a boy is more important than schooling the girls because the boy is the pillar of his family, whereas the girls will leave the family and become member of a different family.
A Girl is Also a Human Being
Culture in this part of the DRC is very tough. Even in the household, there is disparity of jobs or activities-sharing among the children.
Ideally, all the children of the same family should be treated equally.
Here, boys are more favoured than girls. The latter are given more jobs than their brothers. Girls go to fetch water and wood, cook, and wash the dishes and the clothes of everyone in the family.
A girl is also a human being who can be tired; thus, she needs a rest.
This preparation of the girl to become a woman for the kitchen breaches her rights, hinders her freedom, and development – which in the long run, underdevelops the whole country.
Women and girls are good workers if they are given an opportunity to show what they know.
Ngulo: The Cost
Refusing women expression sometimes culminates in household violence and rape. Most village women in the DRC have experienced violence against themselves at least once in their lives.
Husbands believe it is their right to beat their wives since they are their masters.
This is founded on the belief that since it is the man who pays the dowry, he automatically becomes the master of the wife. The latter in some tribes of the DRC are called Ngulo – meaning, the cost.
And today, as the majority of Congolese are getting poor salaries – for those who are lucky to have job, this so-called dowry has turned into not a gift, but a real sale.
Originally, the dowry was a cow in the Eastern DRC, but today that cow has been converted into dollars – sometimes exceeding two thousand US dollars, for getting a woman.
This amount is not easy to collect since people have become jobless, and those who work earn a “salary” that hardly enables them to make a living.
Accordingly, the family with many girls can be sure to get some good amount of money, which sometimes helps the family to start a business.
In the towns, the dowry takes a different shape than in the villages.
This means that in the towns, there are some girls who attend school and who sometimes get degrees. Such girls are special because they are a real fortune for their parents.
The reality here is that the more the girls have studied, the more dowry that will be asked.
Violence and Silence
Today's youth are experiencing all of manifestations of these cultural attitudes. Once they grow up and get married, they will behave the same way as they saw their parents behave and react to one another.
The boys will regard their wives just as they saw their fathers regard their mothers, and for the girls, they will have learned that life means being beaten without saying a word.
This culture is very negative and a big problem for today's generation.
Take a concrete example: today women are being raped by combatants, rebels, and even government soldiers. Due to these traditions of not speaking out about these evils, girls and women will not publicly protest that they have been raped nor denounce their offenders.
This is because there exists some taboo things in the culture. For instance, a girl or a woman can never talk in public about sexual issues. If she dares to do so, she becomes an impossible woman: not well-educated.
Raped women are considered outcasts
In this vein, raped women are considered outcasts, not women to live with. Therefore, they are repudiated by their husbands once they learn the wife has been raped.
In eastern Congo, the prevalence and intensity of rape and other sexual violence is described as the worst in the world.
A 2006 report by the African Association for the Defence of Human Rights provides a broad overview of issues confronting women in the DRC in law, and in daily life.
They have been raped during warfare, and kept as slaves for soldiers.
When the women were released, most of them committed suicide, or checked into a hospital where they would die.
But to make them speak out about the evils they had experienced is not an easy task. This is the effect of the culture of blind obedience for husbands – and men in general, who impede their full development.
Awful and unimaginable brutality
The war has made life for women more precarious. Violence against women is perceived by large sectors of society to be normal.
A phenomenon of pendulum displacement has developed, where people must hasten at night to safety. Violence against girls and women in the Eastern DRC involves awful and unimaginable brutality upon females, regardless of age.
Armed groups and even government soldiers, attack local communities, loot, rape, and kidnap women and children – making them work as sexual slaves in the bush where they hide.
A broad consideration of culture reveals to us that it has both positive and negative aspects: the positive aspects of culture can be maintained as they can foster development, and the negative ones can be banned.
Women and girls should learn that they need to be the first ones to denounce the traditions and customs that disfavour them.
The concept of culture has got different meanings but the one we are dealing with here is that it refers to refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.
In its broadest sense, culture is cultivated behavior; that is the totality of a person's learned, accumulated experience which is socially transmitted, or more briefly, behavior through social learning.
Since a culture is a way of life of a group of people and that the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.