Human Rights in the Congo
While guerrilla warfare in the Congo is oft-reported, the veritable war waged against women in the country is much less known. Problems concerning human rights in the Congo span the gamut from corruption to exploitation to sheer brutal violence. Among the most heinous infractions is the tolerance of systemic rape. Below are nine facts about human rights in the Congo:

  1. The most recent statistics from the United Nations Department on Sexual Violence in Conflict reports a grotesque 11,769 cases of sexual assault from January 2014 to January 2015 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  2. Armed groups (such as rebel groups, gangs, government authorities and police forces) commit 69% of all reported sexual assaults. This forces women to either die or continue providing for their families while living with sexual assault trauma.
  3. Government officials and servants perpetrate 31 percent of sexual assaults, illustrating how systemic rape is in the Congo.
  4. Rape victims are slowly earning reparations in the country, but only in the form of exceptionally inadequate payments. For example, only 30 of the 400 victims of the Songo Mboyo mass rape in 2003 received reparations.
  5. Although the Congo ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), approximately 48 women are raped every hour.
  6. The desire to control Congo’s vast natural resources is linked to the systemic rape of women. Rape socially destroys communities and allows neo-colonizers to abduct land from their traditional shepherds.
  7. The CIA World Fact Book reports a 50% literacy rate among women, further complicating victims’ abilities to report sexual assault.
  8. HIV among rape victims is presumably high, though no official statistic on how many women contract HIV from sexual assaults exists. The CIA World Fact Book reports 374,100 people in the country live with HIV. However, sampling is never perfect and the true number of people living with HIV is most likely much higher — as is the proportion of people who contract HIV from rape.
  9. A nationwide survey of 3,436 Congolese women aged 15 to 49 in 2007 found that 22 percent of sexual assaults were issues of domestic violence wherein a family member perpetrated or instigated the sexual assault.

While the statistics paint an exceedingly grim picture, organizations such as Women for Women are working relentlessly to improve human rights in the Congo and improve the living conditions of assault victims and at-risk women. Women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who participate in the Women for Women program report higher confidence in their ability to make decisions about their bodies and families, earn a higher living wage and are more likely to report their assaults to an appropriate body of authority.

However, the real issue here is not that women do not know how to handle sexual assault, it is that men–especially those in positions of relative power–systemically carry out sexual assaults. It is paramount that the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the U.N. and every other organization and government body working to improve human rights in the Congo, gets one fact straight: women do not need to be taught how to live in fear, men need to be taught that sexual assault is abhorrent and those who choose to commit such unspeakable acts will be held accountable and punished accordingly.

Spencer Linford

Photo: Flickr

Congolese Women
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is abundant in gold, copper and zinc. The natural resources the Congo offers has encouraged competing ethnic groups to become violent. In contrast to this abundance, the DRC is the rape capital of the world. Its prominent sexual violence is charged by war.

The second Congo war ended in 2003 after five years, but sexual assault remains commonplace. The likelihood of rape for Congolese women is much higher during a military climate. Amongst other tactics it is used to humiliate, terminate pregnancies, increase food security and create control – ultimately instilling fear. A 2007 study found that four Congolese women are raped every five minutes, and out of the population of 70 million people, 1.8 million women have been raped. It is also not rare for women to be held captive as sex slaves.

Local Congolese men and women have created rights campaign groups to take the rampant matter into their own hands. Men started masculinity groups with a simple foundation of redefining masculinity. The service is geared towards protecting women and children, teaching men that women are not inferior and educating men that rape is unacceptable and punishable by law.

In addition to the rights campaign groups, Congolese women have established camps for rape victims. At camp, women are provided with legal assistance to maneuver court cases, small jobs for the victims and medical services if needed – some women give birth at camp or need counseling and group therapy.

On the public front is Panzi Hospital, located in eastern DRC. It is dedicated to providing rape victims with psychological assistance, treating gynecological injuries and reintegrating girls and women into society after their stay at the hospital. Panzi has been helping rape victims since 1999 and sees between 1,300 to 1,900 patients a year.

Tiffany Santos

Photo: Google

South Sudanese Women
Since late 2013, South Sudan, the world’s youngest sovereign state, has been enduring a civil war. Conflict along ethnic lines has forced a quarter of the population to relocate. In addition, the violence adversely and disproportionately affects South Sudanese women. While problems persist on unprecedented levels, several government organizations and NGOs have been working to provide aid to the women of South Sudan.

4 Issues South Sudanese Women Face Every Day

1. Women and girls are forced into the sex trade to survive.

South Sudanese women as young as 12 or 14 have been surviving as prostitutes. Many work in the Gumbo, a run-down area near the capital city of Juba. Many of these women are HIV-positive. However, they earn less than one dollar per client.

Doing something about it: Confident Children out of Conflict (CCC)

CCC provides a safe place for South Sudanese children in the hope that they can achieve stability. Founder Cathy Groenendijk and a team of social workers, psychologists and nurses run a children’s shelter in Juba. CCC acts as a refuge for dozens of children, particularly girls. Partnered with organizations like the European Union (EU) and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), CCC accommodates 40 children at once and pays the tuition fees for 600 children to attend school, keeping girls out of the sex trade.

2.  Survivors of sexual assault have no access to mental health resources.

In a 2016 United Nations (UN) independent commission report, 70 percent of South Sudanese women in Juba suffered some form of sexual assault by the end of 2013. Additionally, the same report found that survivors had barely any resources to help their physical or mental recovery from the assault.

Doing something about it: The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is a nonprofit that provides aid to those fleeing conflict or natural disaster. The IRC recently set up 13 centers focused solely on assisting survivors of gender-based violence. The centers provide the women a place to meet regularly to discuss their trauma. Lilian Dawa, a South Sudanese refugee herself, runs one such centers in Uganda. Dawa says that the women greatly value the centers where they also learn skills like how to make a kitchen stove from clay.

3.  Starving families force girls into marriage, ending their education.

Data from 2016 found that 52 percent of South Sudanese girls married by the age of 18. Many families are marrying their daughters off in return for a dowry of cows, a source of money and food. As a result, this effectively ends the daughter’s education.

Doing something about it: Plan International wants to provide an incentive for families to keep their girls in school. They also offer free school meals and food packages for families who decide to keep their daughters in the education system.

4.  South Sudanese women are not receiving justice.

The 2016 UN Commission report on the South Sudanese civil war stated that sexual violence reached “epic proportions.” Many South Sudanese women don’t report their sexual assault due to fears of being outcasted by their families. That, and the fact that few rapists receive consequences for their actions.

Doing something about it: U.S. Department of State

Per a June 2016 executive order, the State Department is held accountable to the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. As part of the strategic plan, the U.S. government must “institutionalize a gender-responsive approach” to its policy toward regions of conflict, include women in the peace process, find ways to hold perpetrators of sexual assault accountable, invest in women to prevent conflict and provide access to relief.

The women of South Sudan undoubtedly face horrific circumstances in the ongoing conflict. Nevertheless, numerous organizations, including the ones mentioned here, remain committed to finding solutions so that the next generation of South Sudanese women doesn’t grow up under the same circumstances.

Sean Newhouse

Photo: Flickr

The need for developing education in Malawi is continual. For example, in 2010, around 10 percent of primary aged children were not in school, and the primary school repetition rate reported in at 24 percent for boys and 29 percent for girls.

Girls in Malawi are exceptionally more vulnerable to a lack of education than boys. In fact, 32 percent of girls aged 14 to 17 are not in school compared to 23 percent of boys this age. Additionally, while 72 percent of boys 15 and older are literate, only 51 percent of women in this age group can read and write.

Part of this gap is caused by the high child marriage rate in Malawi, which is 11th highest in the world. UNICEF reports that approximately 50 percent of Malawian girls marry before they turn 18. Fortunately, this year the Malawian government moved to make marriage legal only after a woman is 18 years old.

Marshall Dyson, founder of the Girl Child Education Movement, is one of many Malawians who recognizes the need for resolution of the educational gender disparity. Dyson’s idea incorporated broadcasting an open discussion of child marriage and girls’ education over the radio. Both men and women of a variety of ages and backgrounds participated in the talk.

The discussion about girls’ education in Malawi broadcasted over Radio Islam, the only Islamic radio station in Malawi. Dyson strategically chose this platform since Muslims rested at risk of discrimination.

Dyson got his start in radio via an internship with Kumakomo Community Radio Station in Zimbabwe. There he served as the content manager of 12 volunteers.

The impact of this position is especially significant, considering that radio acts as the main source of news for most Malawians. According to USAID, the two-hour broadcast “was a collaboration across the YALI and Mandela Washington Fellows networks, and with Regional Leadership Center participants — young leaders between 18 and 35 enrolled in USAID-supported leadership training programs in sub-Saharan Africa.” Around three million people tuned in.

USAID states that “the Muslim Association of Malawi, who attended the event, agreed to open new offices in rural areas where communities can access up-to-date information about education and scholarship opportunities for girls.”

Education in Malawi still has much room for improvement, and humanitarians like Marshall Dyson act as major catalysts in that process. Through work such as his, Malawi is destined to achieve higher standards of education than ever before.

Emma Tennyson

Photo: Flickr

The Practice of Breast Ironing
The practice of breast ironing occurs when the breasts of young girls are pounded with heated objects such as spatulas, hammers and rocks. The aim of the tradition is to halt breast growth in order to slow puberty, and sometimes the practice is done in order to postpone girls’ first sexual relationships. The ritual is mainly carried out by female relatives of the victim. Approximately 3.8 million teenagers are affected by breast ironing worldwide, according to the U.N.

Breast ironing is very popular in the nation of Cameroon. Carole, a victim of the practice there, explains how her mother told her that it was necessary. She claimed it was to keep away men because “‘men mean pregnancy.'” The routine would consist of her mother pressing a hot rock onto each of her breasts several times. It has left Carole with the permanent disfigurement of her breasts, which she describes as “flabby.”

Physical defects are common consequences of this practice. Many maturing girls also face the possibility of breast cancer or difficulty breastfeeding. Mental trauma occurs as well, such as low-self esteem and feelings of betrayal or resentment.

Breast ironing affects about one in four girls in Cameroon, but it is by no means limited to this country in particular. The practice also occurs in the nations of Nigeria, Benin and Chad, according to Newsweek.

Recently, reports revealed that the practice was taking place in some African communities within the U.K. as well. The CAME Women and Girls Development Organisation, a charity campaigning on behalf of breast ironing victims, has claimed that over 1,000 girls in Britain have dealt with the practice.

Fortunately, a number of global charities have increased volunteer work within Cameroon. Sex education is now being stressed as a better means to ending the pregnancies of young girls. By spreading awareness and offering educational services, the practice of breast ironing is already on its way to being stopped.

Gigi DeLorenzo

Photo: Flickr

Women in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative societies in the world. Women in Saudi Arabia rely on men to allow them the rights to travel, become educated, see doctors and marry. The country was ranked 141 of 144 in the 2016 Global Gender Gap World Economic Forum study, which focused on how women fare in economies, political participation, health and education worldwide.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia recently issued an order granting women in Saudi Arabia access to government services like education and healthcare without requiring male consent. This is a significant step in the direction of women’s emancipation. Maha Akeel, director of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, stated: “Now at least it opens the door for discussion on the Guardian system.” The election of Saudi Arabia to the U.N.’s women’s rights commission a month earlier drew large-scale outrage because of this system, which is not ended by the new law.

The Guardian system is based on the premise that women are inferior to men and cannot make important decisions without them. Any woman’s father is her first guardian, and when she marries, guardianship is shifted to her husband. Many women in Saudi Arabia are abused and have their rights restricted by their guardians. This is possible because the legal system is biased toward men, and there are no female judges in the country. Women in Saudi Arabia are, in this way, deprived of independence for the entirety of their lives.

Feminist-led protests have called attention to these inequalities in the past. For example, in September 2016, 2,500 women approached the king’s office demanding the end of guardianship. A supporting petition was signed by an additional 14,000 women, and an online movement grew under the hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian.

Other initiatives have also moved to empower women. The Saudi government has recently encouraged women’s participation in many sectors of the workforce. Saudi Vision 2030, for example, hopes to increase the percentage of working women from 22 to 30.

Although the new law does not end guardianship in Saudi Arabia, it is a historic milestone for women in Saudi Arabia and is a step toward independence for women in the country.

Aishwarya Bansal

Photo: Flickr

Malaria Epidemic in Indonesia Women Fight
Global organizations have made significant strides in fighting the malaria epidemic in Indonesia by focusing on the health and welfare of pregnant women and children.

In an article published by IRIN, William Hawley, a malaria expert with the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), highlighted the importance of malaria treatment and prevention against the disease.

“Pregnant women and children are especially vulnerable to malaria, and modern malaria diagnosis and prevention can be delivered via existing maternal health and immunization services in a symbiotic way,” Hawley said.

World health organizations such as UNICEF have been working closely with Indonesian government agencies and world health programs to provide free and affordable care to women and children in the region.

“The malaria program, the antenatal care program, and the expanded program on immunization all benefit, but most important — women and kids benefit,” Hawley said.

According to the article by IRIN, nurses and midwives have been helping pregnant women and infants fight malaria by providing diagnosis, treatment and information regarding the disease. In response, more women have been provided antenatal care and more children have been immunized against malaria.

The Harsh Effects of the Malaria Epidemic in Indonesia

Malaria is a disease spread by mosquitoes causing symptoms including fever, exhaustion, vomiting, and headaches. Severe cases generally include yellowing of the skin, seizures, coma, or, in the most extreme instances, death.

The disease can be more dangerous to pregnant women and infants causing stillbirths, low birth weight, abortion and infant mortality. Malaria can also cause severe respiratory problems in both adults and children.

According to a report published by the World Health Organization (WHO), out of a population of close to 260 million, 190 million people were reportedly malaria free in 2015. This comes after a significant number of cases were reported between 2009 and 2012.

With the help of finances provided by the Global Fund, WHO, and UNICEF, residents of Indonesia have access to preventative measures against the disease in the form of mosquito nets, insect repellents, and insecticides. Residents are also taught the importance of mosquito control measures such as draining water to prevent reproduction.

According to a report by the CDC, with funding from UNICEF, USAID, the Gates Foundation and the Ministry of Health (MOH), many preventative programs have been integrated into immunization and prenatal care programs in five provinces in eastern Indonesia.

These organizations hope to expand to all areas where the disease continuously occurs to help fight the malaria epidemic in Indonesia.

Drew Hazzard

Photo: Flickr

Women around the world are working to end economic gender discrimination and poverty by advocating for girls’ access to education. These 10 women are among the many who are advocating for women’s rights through education.

10 Powerful Women Fighting for Girls’ Access to Education

  1. K. Zehra Arshad: K. Zehra Arshad is the national coordinator for the Pakistan Coalition for Education and serves on the Board of Directors for the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). She has advocated for women’s rights for years through policy-making and fights gender disparity in schools to improve girls’ access to education.
  2. Michelle Bachelet: Michelle Bachelet is the president of Chile. At the beginning of her second term in 2014, she implemented a program for public education, influenced by her earlier role as executive director of U.N. Women. While serving at the U.N., she championed the Fund for Gender Equality, which offers grants to programs that provide women equal access to quality education. Bachelet believes that the key to girls’ economic opportunities is education.
  3. Rasheda Choudhury: Rasheda Choudhury is the Vice President of the Global Campaign for Education (GCE). GCE is an organization working to end the global education crisis through free, public education for all. She is also the Executive Director of the Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE), a group of more than a thousand educator networks and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Bangladesh. CAMPE has mobilized millions of people to join the fight for girls’ access to education. Choudhury is a journalist and an advocate for gender justice in education.
  4. Camilla Croso: Camilla Croso is the president of GCE and the coordinator of the Latin American Campaign for the Right to Education (CLADE). CLADE is a network of 15 national forums, eight regional Latin American groups and five international NGOs who work primarily in Latin America. Furthermore, Croso represents civil society as a member of countless U.N. organizations. Her primary focus is advocating for women’s rights to education in Latin America.
  5. Monique Fouilhoux: Monique Fouilhoux serves as the chairperson of GCE. An educator from France, Fouilhoux advocates for higher education and the impact of governments and NGOs on education for women.
  6. Julia Gillard: Julia Gillard served as Prime Minister of Australia before joining GPE as Chair of the Board. Gillard wants to strengthen global education systems for girls and bring equality into the classroom. She believes equal education will contribute to the end of poverty. Most recently, she announced GPE’s new Replenishment 2020 campaign, which will reach 870 million children in need of education.
  7. Graça Machel: Graça Machel is a philanthropist and activist for girls’ access to education and basic human rights. She founded the Graça Machel Trust to protect girls from childhood marriage and female genital mutilation. Machel believes that adolescent girls need to have the same educational opportunities as their male counterparts in order to contribute to the development of their communities.
  8. Michelle Obama: Michelle Obama served as the First Lady of the United States. In 2015 she launched the “Let Girls Learn” initiative. “Let Girls Learn” uses the aid of 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers to support community projects in developing countries that help girls go to school and stay in school.
  9. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is finishing her 10-year term as president of Liberia. During her presidency, she prioritized girls’ education and advocated for women’s rights. Additionally, Sirleaf’s work as president earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
  10. Malala Yousafzai: As a young teen, Malala Yousafzai defied Pakistani extremists and went to school, risking her life. Because of her bravery, she became an activist icon for girls’ education. Yousafzai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. She also founded the Malala Fund, an organization that advocates for changing international, national and local policies and systems to give girls access to quality education.

Overall, the fight for girls’ access to education is key to ending poverty. These 10 women are pursuing groundbreaking strategies to implement equality into developing communities around the world.

Rachel Cooper

Photo: Flickr

Lebanon is known around the Middle East and the region of North Africa (MENA) as one of the leaders in progressive values. The country has prided itself on ensuring equal rights for women and men in its national constitution. Despite many accomplishments, women’s political participation in Lebanon remains one of the lowest percentages in the MENA region. What is happening in Lebanon that is keeping women out of politics?

Traditional Lack of Female Participation in Politics

In 1953, women in Lebanon were granted the right to vote and participate in politics. Since then, only 17 women have held positions in politics. As of December 2016, less than three percent of government seats have been held by women.

In 2005, women’s participation in politics reached its peak. Of the 128 seats in parliament, six women held parliamentary positions. This was the highest amount of women holding seats in parliament at the same time in the nation’s history. Today, only one woman holds a parliamentary position.

Changing Laws, Unchanging Culture

Under Article 7 of the Lebanese constitution, gender equality is guaranteed, but personal status laws are not. Instead, personal status laws are in the hands of religious, who are not under the jurisdiction of the government, and therefore, gender equality laws do not apply to them. This type of inequality flows into households, where under family codes and citizen laws, women are still owned by their husband and fathers. This type of second-class citizen culture affects women’s political participation in Lebanon. Many women are unable to take action due to their financial and marital status.

Women in Lebanon who vote do so for their families and not for their preferred candidates. Some women are not allowed to vote for candidates outside of their kinship. Still, women’s political participation in Lebanon is important. Women have the ability to sway votes in their constituencies, but often do not use the full extent of their power. The average amount of women who actually wield their vote is about 16 percent. Out of the 18 constituencies, only five of them see participation from women, between 16 to 50 percent.

Reform on the Horizon

The women’s quota within the Lebanese government has become key for women’s political participation in Lebanon. According to, the women’s quota can be used, “either in the form of reserved seats in parliament, or (preferably) obliging party or electoral lists to contain a certain percentage of women candidates.”

Although this mandate was enforced, women still rely on NGOs to voice their political stances within the government. In Lebanon, there are 18 political parties, but seven dominate. Practically all of these groups are led by males, and most parties led by females have turned into NGOs, which have a network of women working together in order to affect change.

Until women’s voices are allowed to be amplified and actually heard, women will continue fighting.

Maria Rodriguez

Photo: Flickr

MADRE: An Organization for Women Across the World
MADRE is an organization fighting for the rights and empowerment of women worldwide that has been around for more than 30 years. It began when a group of U.S. women from a variety of backgrounds returned from Nicaragua in the ’80s in the midst of the Contra War.

Upon arrival back in the U.S., their mission was to spread awareness about issues facing Nicaraguan women and to improve domestic policies regarding women’s rights.

There are two different strategies that MADRE uses: partnering with local organizations that stand for human rights and advocating for the international law to be held accountable.

The New York-based organization has projects and partners around the globe, in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Haiti, Colombia, Kenya, Palestine, Syria and Iraq. The work MADRE is doing in each country differs, but it all comes down to the same goals of raising women up and helping them find lasting solutions to whatever issues they may face.

MADRE was recently featured in an article on the United Nations Women website for one of its projects in Nicaragua in which women use talk radio to discuss gender violence. MADRE received a grant from the United Nations for the project. The radio station has the sole focus of women’s rights and is the first of its kind in the region.

MADRE stands strong as an organization that is advocating on the behalf of women to end violence and rape, maintain gender and sexual minority rights and increase access to emergency aid.

According to the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRDIC ), “MADRE works towards a world in which all people enjoy the fullest range of individual and collective human rights; in which resources are shared equitably and sustainably; in which women participate effectively in all aspects of society; and in which people have a meaningful say in decisions that affect their lives.”

Shannon Elder

Photo: Flickr