Gege Katana Bukuru. Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman
We are putting the spotlight on women who have paved the way – the bold and the brave – and we know there are and can be many more of them.
We are pushing for #MoreWomenMorePeace.
“I will never give up. There is no place for fear in my heart.”
Those were Gégé Katana Bukuru’s words on receiving this year’s Per Anger Prize, the Swedish Government’s prize for human rights.
As a defender of women’s rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo, she lives from day to day, putting her life on the line. Born in 1963 in Burundi as the eldest of her siblings, she had the opportunity to study at the Université Lumière Lyon 2. Her father’s strong sense of responsibility for his people has always been a source of inspiration and motivation that has shaped her commitment and driven her struggle forward.
Inspired by both her father and her studies in France, she crossed yet another country border and, a few years later, carried out a research and development project in Rwanda. However, her desire to stop sexual violence against women drew her attention to another country. The Democratic Republic of the Congo and the violence-ridden provinces in the south-eastern parts of the country became the primary target of her struggle.
The bloody and prolonged war, today considered to be the deadliest conflict in the world since the Second World War, affects the country’s women to a horrendously large extent. This brutality means that two out of three women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo will be subjected to violence or sexual violence during their lifetime. Support to women subjected to this violence is indispensable, a fact that Gégé Katana Bukuru underscored unequivocally when she founded the organisation Solidarity of Women Activists for the Defence of Human Rights (SOFAD).
More than six hundred women are part of the network of grassroots movements that together constitute the organisation. The women are trained to communicate women’s rights for the purpose of putting a stop to the widespread sexual violence.
Core activities also include direct support to vulnerable women through dialogue with victims of rape, but also through support to and training of activists to increase their influence and opportunities to be able to defend and advocate human rights. Gégé Katana Bukuru has become a recognised and respected name, mainly in rural areas, where she has established peace clubs that serve as oases for women’s self-empowerment.
Peace requires that more women, young and old, make their voices heard and can participate in decision-making processes in villages and towns. Equality between the sexes is in focus, as are efforts to promote women’s economic independence. However, in a context where women are not considered to have the right to raise their voices to men and where violence against women has been a widespread problem for generations, the organisation’s ambition of maintaining a feminist movement at the grass roots level is considered controversial.
At international level, on the other hand, she has received support and been honoured by a number of organisations, including Amnesty International, which in 2007 awarded her the Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defender at Risk. Being the first woman to receive this award, which aims to protect human rights defenders and uphold human rights, it further emphasises the importance of women’s work in peace processes. Women’s voices must be heard, listened to and given scope in peacebuilding processes.
Gégé Katana Bukuru has also dedicated much of her life to mediating between the various armed groups in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and in other places. This, combined with the organisation’s widespread and well-known work, has made her enemies, who have stopped at nothing to try and silence her in her peaceful struggle.
Her call to Congolese women to protest the killing and sexual violence led to accusations that she sympathised with the enemy. In connection with this, she was arrested and threatened with imprisonment and torture. However, the outcome was house arrest, and she was completely forbidden to travel for seven years.
Despite these setbacks, systematic robberies and the many death threats that she has been subjected to, she has been able to maintain her dedication and conduct the organisation’s vital and impressive work. Known as the Iron Lady of the DRC, she continues her feminist struggle for all women of the world.
“I call myself a feminist because I vigorously fight in defence of rights for all women, irrespective of their race, political or religious affiliation.”
Written by Moa Haeggblom