Euan Denholm / Reuters Congolese women line up to cast their ballots at a polling station in Chombo village, near Bukavu town in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, July 30, 2006.

Breaking Congo's Glass Ceiling

Gender Politics in the DRC

On a sweltering Sunday afternoon in Goma, one of the largest and most troubled cities in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chantal Faida emerged beaming from the tin-roofed office of the National Elections Commission. It was May 2015, and she had just registered as a candidate in Congo’s upcoming provincial elections (originally scheduled for October 2015 but later postponed) to contest the seat of Goma, the capital of North Kivu.

“Today we write the first chapter of a new beginning in our province’s history,” Faida said, standing in front of a pool of reporters. “It would be my great honor to represent you, to be your voice for hope.” Cameras flashed and reporters jostled for a sound bite, pushing their microphones impossibly close to her mouth as she spoke. Faida is a polished public speaker, somehow making her announcement sound like a victory speech even though her campaign had only just begun.

Beside her, Faida’s supporters stood waving the azure flag of her party, the Alliance for Development and the Republic, an opposition movement that formed in 2011 several months before the last elections. Each supporter carried a glossy calendar printed with the campaign slogan, “Chantal Faida: The Voice of Hope,” distributing copies to a growing gaggle of onlookers.

Faida is an unusual aspiring Congolese politician. She is not part of the wealthy, powerful elite, as many candidates for political office tend to be. “I came here today on the back of a moto, and I’ll go back home on one, too,” she said, emphasizing her working-class roots.

At just 27, Faida has lived through natural disasters and wars. She survived the First and Second Congo Wars, which began in the late 1990s and stretched into the early 2000s. In 2002, when she was only 13, Mt. Nyiragongo erupted and sent lava flowing into Goma, where it destroyed more than 15 percent of the city. Still, Faida graduated from high school with top grades and went on to study economics at one of Goma’s best colleges. She was determined to build a more prosperous and stable future for her community. 

It was with this ideal of public service that Faida entered civil service, first securing an entry-level job in communications at the Ministry of Tourism after she graduated from university. “I felt a calling,” she said. “I feel it’s destiny that I will help end my people’s suffering and build a brighter future.” But what makes her stand out the most as a candidate is that she is a woman.

A total of 55 political parties had officially registered candidates to contest Goma’s five seats for the provincial ballot. Candidate lists on both sides of the aisle are typically replete with the male power brokers and businessmen who have dominated the province’s politics for decades. Last year was no different. Among the more than 30 candidates nominated to contest Goma by the six leading majority and opposition parties, there were just two women.

Chantal Faida.

Even at the national level, politics is a male-dominated field in Congo. There are fewer than two females in every 20 parliamentarians. Just 42 out of the 500 members of the National Assembly are women, and men represent 96 percent of senators.

Realistically, Faida faces an uphill battle in getting elected. A total of 245 candidates will stand in Goma, and polls conducted in North Kivu province reveal that almost four in ten voters would be “unlikely” or “unwilling” to vote for a woman. Residents in the cities of Butembo and Beni, in the so-called Grand Nord region of the province, were most skeptical of female candidates. Researchers have attributed this to patriarchal family structures, which are prevalent among the Grand Nord’s largest tribes.

Chantal Faida is one of the few female political candidates in Goma, North Kivu.

Blaming “cultural factors,” Felicien Maisha, author of DR Congo: A Conspiracy Unveiled, says that many Congolese voters are hesitant to throw their support behind a woman to represent their community. “We live in a patriarchal society. Throughout our history as a country, we’ve seen very few women take a leadership position in the government. . . . People here tend to think of leadership and power as masculine traits. That makes it extremely difficult for a woman candidate to win here.”

“There are many inspiring women leaders in our communities,” says Maguy Buhendwa, a reporter working with the Association of Women Journalists (AFEM) in Bukavu. “But they’re underrepresented in public life in Congo, from the bottom to the top. We need to work to highlight their work and change the attitude that we are somehow inferior to men.”

AFEM is engaged in a national campaign known as Rien Sans les Femmes, or “Nothing Without Women,” which is pushing to increase women’s engagement with every aspect of the democratic process: as voters, campaigners, and candidates. That includes changing community members’ perceptions of women’s role in public life.

They’ve started to have some impact. In June 2015, AFEM partnered with 40 local advocacy groups to organize a petition calling for equal representation of men and women in public institutions in Congo. In less than two months, they convinced more than 200,000 men and women in North and South Kivu provinces to sign. The event even secured nationwide media coverage.

Wary of the campaign’s gathering momentum, the government offered the chance to publicly present the petition to the president of the National Elections Commission.

“I have to say that this is one of the most effective civil society actions this country has ever seen,” Aubin Minaku had commented at the time. He is the president of the National Assembly and a close confidant of Congolese President Joseph Kabila. He had also met with AFEM and other campaigners during their visit to the capital.

Buhendwa remains upbeat about the future. “We women will take our place at the table, campaign, participate, and make our voices heard. At the end of the day, it’s our right.”

A GAME CHANGER

Despite a number of small but important victories, these movements have not changed the gender imbalance much. In 2011, only 12 percent of the 18,000 candidates in the legislative elections were women. This time around, women represent less than four percent of those contesting provincial seats.

An electoral law, passed in 2011 by the parliament, could have been a game changer. It required women to make up one-third of the election candidates put forth by the political parties. Neighboring Rwanda passed a similar law in 2003 when it drafted its new constitution after its brutal civil war. It even went a step further in requiring that women make up one-third of all posts in “decision-making organs.” Before the new constitution, women made up 25.7 percent of the parliament. In 2003 alone, that number shot up to 48.8 percent. And today, women hold an unprecedented 64 percent of seats in Rwanda’s parliament: a higher ratio than in any other country in the world.

But Kabila tried to revise the election law in December 2015 so that it would help him stay in power past the two-term limit. The amendment, already approved by the National Assembly and passed over to the Senate for consideration, would require a nationwide census to be carried out before any elections took place in the country. This would be expensive and time-consuming and would no doubt delay the election.

After protesters flooded the streets of Kinshasa denouncing the bill, the Senate—marshaled by Congo's ever-wily political schemer and octogenarian Léon Kengo wa Dondo—passed the new electoral law but removed the unpopular clause that would have required a census before heading to the polls. Unfortunately, the clause allocating a quota for female political candidates was sacrificed in the process.

Legislators argued that the quota system “favored” women and “discouraged competition.” They replaced it with new language that recognizes the value of gender equality but no longer obliged political parties to include women on their list of candidates. On top of that, the revised electoral law required all candidates for local and provincial elections to have graduated from high school and pay a registration fee of $110.

“We live in a patriarchal society. Throughout our history as a country, we’ve seen very few women take a leadership position in the government. . . . People here tend to think of leadership and power as masculine traits. That makes it extremely difficult for a woman candidate to win here.”

“It was sexist, affecting women more than anyone else,” Espérance Mawanzo told me. She is the president of the Parity Observatory watchdog group, which promotes respect for women’s rights in Congo. “We know that girls are much less likely to attend school than boys here; the cultural and financial obstacles are much greater for girls. This law will now make it even harder for women to run in elections in Congo than it already is.”

At first, Mawanzo and her colleagues at the Parity Observatory felt defeated when the new law was ratified. But after weeks of planning and reflection, they decided to take action. “We were convinced this was wrong. We had to do something about it and try to get justice for women.” In September last year, they took a bold and highly unusual move. Exercising her constitutional right, Mawanzo challenged the new electoral law in the Constitutional Court. “We believe that the new electoral law violates the constitution in a number of ways,” she said. “For example, Article 14 of our constitution says that it’s illegal in Congo to discriminate against women in public institutions. But [the revised legislation] will quite clearly discriminate against women, in a big way. It’s also completely unconstitutional to force candidates to pay a fee—this violates both Article 5 and Article 13, for example.” Article 13 of the country’s constitution outlaws discrimination against any social group in their access to elected office.

In September 2015, 20 feminist activists joined Mawanzo and journeyed over 900 miles from the eastern provinces to Kinshasa, making the case to the court’s justices that the law violated seven articles of the constitution. They organized press conferences, met with politicians and foreign diplomats, and rallied support for their cause.

The Supreme Court has heard the case but has not yet delivered a verdict. “We don’t know when they’ll finally make their decision,” said Mawanzo. “It’s already been almost six months. This is a very sensitive issue, and we’re conscious of that. But we remain positive and we feel confident.”

Faida also had thoughts on the case. “The new elections law is unfair. This was just the latest sign of disrespect for women from our political elites. For many [women], the new registration fee now simply makes it impossible to get involved.”

After all the protests over the electoral law, the provincial elections did not even happen, and October 2015 came and went quietly.

“I don’t even know what to say, what to think. I’m shocked and confused,” Faida told me. She described her campaign as “authentic” and how frustrated she felt now that the public momentum gathering behind her amounted to nothing.

“I went door-to-door in every single one of Goma’s 18 neighborhoods. In almost all 400 districts,” she said. “I connected with people. From unemployed students concerned about their future prospects, to grandmothers suffering from poor health with no social services to help them.”

The Democratic Republic of Congo's President Joseph Kabila, September 5, 2013.

Dependent on small donations from friends and family members, Faida hopes that her party will step in and provide additional funding when the elections are rescheduled.

“Even today, the CENI [National Elections Commission] has not even issued a statement or press release to explain why our elections calendar has not been respected,” she said. “Why not? It’s unacceptable. I did everything required of me as a candidate. I registered, I paid my dues, I waited. But the CENI has failed us and our democracy, and the people of Congo are still waiting. This is against the law and it’s against our constitution.”

Congo analysts speculate that the elections were delayed because Kabila, seeking to remain in power beyond November, is trying to employ a strategy known as glissement, or slippage, to stay in power. This involves "creating a plethora of administrative and political imbroglios" that would make it logistically and financially impossible to organize elections on time, allowing him to continue as president.

“Kabila knows that his party is now extremely unpopular, especially in the eastern provinces,” said Felicien Maisha. “It’s clear: he’s failed to live up to all of his promises made since 2001, and the people can see that. If the provincial elections happened, I’m certain that his party would lose its majority in the provincial assemblies. That’s why I think he’s so hesitant to allow democratic elections to happen in the provinces.”

Polls conducted in 2015 have revealed overwhelming dissatisfaction with the president’s performance. Ninety percent of residents in North Kivu—Faida’s home province—believe that Congo is heading in the wrong direction under Kabila’s leadership. Just 20 percent said that they would vote for his party, the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy, in future national elections.

Despite this, Maisha believes that delaying provincial elections is actually in the national interest because it might increase the chances that national elections will be organized on time. “Of course, it’s a shame that provincial elections didn’t happen like they should have. . . . We haven’t had provincial elections since 2006. But, we have to admit that resources—financial or otherwise—are limited. If Congo has to choose between either national or provincial elections, we’ve got to prioritize the national level. The Congolese people simply must have the opportunity to elect a new president to lead the country forward.”

It appears that many in the international community agree. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior United Nations official told me that “the consensus among Western diplomats [in Congo] is that these provincial elections are now impossible. They’d be incredibly complex and incredibly expensive. I think that very few donors have the appetite to bankroll this provincial vote that would almost certainly be rigged, anyway. All eyes are fixed on the national elections in 2016 and what Kabila will do next.”

There is every possibility that the elections will now simply be canceled altogether, postponed indefinitely by the National Elections Commission. Many worry that further delays to the provincial or national elections will spark renewed violence. This is particularly true in Congo’s eastern provinces, including Faida’s native North Kivu, which are home to more than 70 armed groups.

The delays mean that Congo’s political elites—predominantly men—will continue to hold their seats, which they have done without an election for over a decade. It also means that talented, ambitious young people will continue to be denied the right to run for public office. Future leaders considering a life in politics might now think twice before deciding to contest elections if the authorities can cancel them at the last minute.

For the Congolese people, said Faida, “it’s an unacceptable denial of our constitutional right to elect our leaders. And it denies women and women candidates like me the right to have a say in our great nation’s future.” Given all the time, money, and emotion she invested in her campaign, Faida’s frustration is understandable. For now, she has returned to her tourism job. She follows the political situation closely and hopes the government will announce a new date for provincial elections soon. “Despite everything, I’m still optimistic,” she said.

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