Despite being a place of refuge for displaced women and children, the village of Walungu could hardly be called a safe haven. Until a couple of years ago, the people who fled the violence of armed groups in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo reached Walungu only to find themselves under attack again. At night, groups of men and children armed with assault rifles, rocket launchers, and mortars would raid the town and unleash terror among its inhabitants.
Sylvie was one of them. Her anguish was compounded by the fact that her husband, Colonel Botamba, took active part in the fight against the armed groups as a member of the Congolese army, the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC).
Domestic violence had also entered Sylvie’s house, and that of many wives of army fighters. “Our husbands used to drink a lot, and sometimes they hit us”, Sylvie said when we met her. “My husband also chased other women. Sometimes he did not come home for a few nights.”
“Those days are gone,” she added.
Today, Walungu is not ravaged by constant fighting anymore. An azure blue United Nations flag is flying over a glistening white hilltop where the battalion of Pakistani peacekeepers is stationed. Sylvie, wearing a red dress, speaks quietly. Sitting in the shade of a blue tarpaulin, her eyes follow the lush green hills of South Kivu, where women are growing tomatoes and onions among plantain groves.
As she talks about her husband, her serious expression gives way to a proud smile. Her fellow Mamans Sensibilisateurs nod in approval.
The Mamans Sensibilisateurs are a group of wives of FARDC soldiers, led by Sylvie. Their goal is to offer support to women in Walungu who are victims of domestic violence. Originally an initiative spearheaded by Sylvie alone, the group has grown to about 15 members, helping dozens of women in the village.
Sylvie was inspired by our local project Tomorrow is a New Day on security sector reform. As part of this project, we establish committees within each FARDC battalion, and train committee members on human rights. These trained soldiers become human rights defenders within the army; they raise awareness among fellow combatants of humanitarian law and responsible behavior, and monitor human rights violations within their unit. The initiative has been widely successful, leading to a 30% increase in positive relationship between the army and civilians in the target areas.
Replicating the structure of the committees, Sylvie began holding weekly gatherings with other women married to FARDC soldiers. Initially, only a few people attended, but “once we realized that by working together we can change our husbands’ behavior for the better, our small committee grew.”
Sylvie and the Mamans Sensibilisateurs have piloted a co-counseling system. Couples are assigned a counselor who meets individually with the wife and the husband to discuss their problems. “Sometimes”, Sylvie said, “we are also asking our spouses to talk directly to their husbands, reminding them of how they should treat their wife and their responsibilities as a soldier.”
Shortly after she launched the Mamans Sensibilisateurs, Sylvie started seeing improvements in the lives of women in Walungu, including her own. “One day my husband came home and gave me his salary. This never happened before,” she said. “At the first of every month, my husband took his salary from the bank and went straight to the drinking place to spend time with his friends. But this time, he gave me all the money he earned and said we can decide together.”
The FARDC soldiers are appreciative of the initiative as well. “Our wives have seen all the positive change the training and sensitization sessions brought about in their husbands,” said Joseph, the leader of one of the army committees. “As soon as there is a problem with one of the husbands, Sylvie and her mamans are there to help.”
Sylvie’s work does not stop there. By reaching out to women in the village and providing advice to hundreds of people, Sylvie and the Mamans Sensibilisateurs have helped improve mutual trust between soldiers and civilians in Walungu.
At a time of relative tranquility, Sylvie’s group continues growing, offering respite from the woes of the past and freedom from fear in the household.
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