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Congolese Journalist Champions Women, Human Rights
(Namegabe calls for more dialogue in Democratic Republic of the Congo)

By Carlyn Reichel
Staff Writer

Washington — Chouchou Namegabe initially seems like the quiet type. Then she begins telling the stories that brought her to the international stage — the stories of the women in her native Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) who have been the victims of rape and sexual violence. She reveals herself as a truly affecting and passionate advocate for justice and human rights in Africa. 

With the passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1888 condemning the use of rape as a weapon of war, the effect of armed conflict on women is in the international spotlight. (See “Clinton Hails U.N. Resolution to Protect Women Against Violence ( http://www.america.gov/st/democracyhr-english/2009/September/20090930131949ajesrom0.5002405.html ).”)

For Namegabe, however, sharing the stories of the otherwise voiceless victims and bringing their plight to the attention of the world community is her life’s work. It has been a long, uphill battle.

Now 31, Namegabe has worked as a radio journalist in the DRC since she was 17. When the eastern Congo was first overcome by hostilities and civil war in the late 1990s, she broke cultural taboos for women, faced down prejudice and threats of violence and used her microphone to denounce the grave violations of women’s human rights that were occurring.

At first, even the language was stacked against Namegabe’s cause. Before she could change the culture of silence and shame around issues of sexual violence, she had to find a way to talk about it. As there was no word for rape in any of the local dialects, Namegabe and her fellow reporters borrowed the word ubakaji from Kiswahili in neighboring Tanzania. They had to start by explaining what ubakaji meant.

The challenges grew from there. The first time Namegabe broadcast a rape victim’s testimonial on the radio, it shocked the audience by talking so directly about a problem most women kept secret.

“We can’t talk about sex widely on the radio,” Namegabe said, “but we couldn’t stay without doing anything.” So she convinced women to open up and share their experience on air. She promoted the idea that rape is not a personal shame, but a communitywide epidemic.

More than 10 years later, Namegabe reflects that the greatest change she has observed has been breaking this culture of silence. For the victims, “it was the first step to heal their internal wounds because they were traumatized,” she said. Once victims began to talk about their experiences, Namegabe and her fellow journalists were able to point them to organizations that provided medical and psychological assistance. But the struggle for the DRC’s women is far from over.

Though the civil war in the DRC was officially ended in 2003, rebel forces from neighboring Uganda and Rwanda are still entrenched in eastern Congo, and the cycle of rape and violence is again on the rise. The United Nations Population Fund recorded 6,693 new cases of sexual violence in the DRC during the first half of 2008 alone. According to Namegabe, the total number of victims of sexual violence in her country since conflict broke out in 1998 exceeds 1 million.

For Namegabe, solutions will not come from more U.N. resolutions or international aid money, but simply in talking about the issues openly and pressuring leaders to take responsibility. “I say that the first thing to do is political pressure. It’s not a miracle solution; it doesn’t ask money,” she said. “Military operations [don’t] bring solutions. There are increasing, new cases of rape now in South Kivu because there are military operations done.

“It only asks for the political will of the international community to enter into the problem, to make pressure for the Rwandan government and the Ugandan government to accept to be around the table and discuss about their problem. Only dialogue, only dialogue.”

Namegabe is a firm believer that women can bring about change through dialogue, so she makes it a point to train the next generation of female journalists in the DRC. Namegabe has no formal education in journalism; she learned everything about writing and reporting news for the radio from a mentor called Aziza. “She met me on the road, and she felt that she could teach me journalism. I thought that I could do the same for other young journalists.”

In 2003, Namegabe helped found the South Kivu Association of Women Journalists (Association des Femmes des Médias du Sud Kivu — AFEM) to teach journalism to women and foster professionalism in the field. In addition to creating a network of women and resources in the media, AFEM is beginning to organize a scholarship program for young women to study journalism and place them in positions with local media. Namegabe hopes AFEM will eventually help put women in positions of respect and power throughout the DRC media.

Despite the threats and prejudices she faces every day, Namegabe insists that she will continue journalism in pursuit of her ideals. “Because of that, I have the courage to continue my work, to continue my job, to continue my advocacy instead of being frightened. For me, it’s a kind of revolt. When I see the situation that women of my country are living in, I don’t accept it.”

Namegabe’s decade of work in human rights has led her to testify about abuses in the DRC before the International Criminal Court at The Hague and the U.S. Congress in Washington. On November 12, her journalistic excellence was honored by the Knight Foundation’s International Center for Journalists.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.  Web site: http://www.america.gov)
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