Indigenous Peoples in the D.R.C. live nomadic or semi-nomadic lives, with their way of life intimately tied to the forest and its resources. However, the historical and ongoing expropriation of Indigenous lands for conservation and logging has forced many to abandon their traditional way of life and become landless living in extreme poverty.
Indigenous peoples in the D.R.C. are in a considerably worse situation than the national population, facing inferior living conditions and poor access to basic services like health and education. Discrimination against them takes various forms, including racial stereotyping, social exclusion, and systematic violations of their rights.
Indigenous women and girls in particular face compounded challenges, one of the most daunting being their restricted access to healthcare services, resulting in high rates of home births and early sexual encounters. The armed conflict in the D.R.C., and particularly in the province of North Kivu, has led to many atrocities, including the rape of Indigenous women and girls as a weapon of war.
Faced with these tremendous adversities, Indigenous women and girls also suffer from multiple challenges related to menstrual health, such as a lack of proper equipment and facilities, or cultural taboos that lead to social exclusion, all leading to gender inequalities being perpetuated.
In the face of this extremely difficult situation, Indigenous Peoples are still working everyday to reclaim and protect their fundamental human rights. The Indigenous-led organization Focus Droits et Accès has tirelessly played a role in these efforts since 2010 - their projects have provided access to public services such as water, health, and public safety, and defended Indigenous Peoples' economic, social, and cultural rights through numerous initiatives. Azimuth World Foundation has been supporting their efforts to improve menstrual hygiene in the province of North Kivu, an exceptional project we get to discuss in-depth with Program Officer Miriam Bahaya during this episode of Voices From the Ground.
Play the video version below (English subtitles available), or scroll down for the English transcript.
I'm Ms. Miriam Bahaya, program officer at Focus Droits et Accès. Focus Droits et Accès is an Indigenous women's non-profit organization created in June 2010 to advance the rights of Indigenous women. We work and devote the bulk of our resources to ensuring that every Indigenous woman and girl, and other minority and marginalized groups, have access to all the rights that should be recognized to all humans.
In terms of our mission, we have three main goals: First, to empower, amplify the voice and build the leadership and self-determination of Indigenous women and girls to enable them to participate in the social negotiation process for peace, justice, rights, and development, concerning their autonomy and rights-claiming strategies.
Second, to advance education on rights and peace building to prevent gender-based violence and violent conflict.
Third, to promote and reinforce balanced relations and equality between men and women. We also offer adapted services and local services to minimize violent conflict, serving Indigenous women and girls and other minority and marginalized social groups.
In terms of our achievements, we can't list them all because the list is exhaustive, but we can give you a few examples.
We have organized breast and cervical cancer screening campaigns for Indigenous women and girls in three localities in North Kivu.
We have carried out 16 advocacy actions to bring about lasting change in discriminatory conduct and practices towards Indigenous women and girls.
We also provide psychosocial and medical care for Indigenous women and girls victims of sexual and gender-based violence in the context of armed conflict.
We have distributed WASH kits to Indigenous households in 3 localities in North Kivu province. We have distributed menstrual hygiene kits to 800 Indigenous women and girls in 8 localities in North Kivu.
We also organized 5 awareness-raising sessions on preventing and combating breast and cervical cancer. We organized education and awareness-raising sessions on primary prevention of sexual and gender-based violence against Indigenous women and girls in 9 localities in North Kivu province.
We have also organized sessions to raise awareness about contraceptive methods to promote the sexual and reproductive health of women and girls in 4 localities in the province of North Kivu
We have also developed economic initiatives to improve economic power and facilitate women's access to health services in 4 localities in the province of North Kivu.
REINFORCED VULNERABILITY: INDIGENOUS WOMEN IN THE D.R.C.
North Kivu province, as in fact all the Democratic Republic of Congo, was a bastion of local and foreign armed groups that have caused death and desolation among the civilian population. This context reinforces vulnerability for Indigenous women and girls, who are already classified as minority and marginalized social groups..
Given that rape is used as a weapon of war, Indigenous women and girls are more exposed because of the superstition that having sex with an Indigenous woman or girl brings luck or happiness. So, this context, combined with the poor economic setting, the already precarious health system, and other aggravating factors, make the living conditions for Indigenous women and girls increasingly difficult in North Kivu province.
AN OBSTACLE TO EQUALITY: INDIGENOUS WOMEN'S MENSTRUAL HEALTH
We must start by tackling the problems we want to address. Firstly, Indigenous women and girls in rural areas are a marginalized group that faces numerous challenges in managing their menstruation, meaning they don't have the means to face and cope with discriminatory norms and practices that make it difficult to maintain good menstrual hygiene.
As a result of these combined challenges, Indigenous women and girls are deprived of certain fundamental rights, including those relating to education, work, and health, turning a simple biological fact into an obstacle to gender equality..
Insufficient information on menstrual health and hygiene management, poverty, menstrual taboos and lack of information, prevent Indigenous women and girls in rural communities from using appropriate sanitary pads.
Society pressures women and girls to hide when they menstruate, curtailing their activities and making women and girls not want to leave the house for fear of other people's stares or even mockery and humiliation.
For the same reason, some girls don't go to school when menstruating. Their periods are a barrier to staying in school because washing or changing sanitary pads in the school facility is a problem.
EDUCATION, SENSIBILIZATION, RESOURCES: ABOUT FDA'S MENSTRUAL HEALTH PROJECT
In order to face this issue, we felt it necessary to strengthen education and awareness of menstruation among community members and provide women the resources and hygiene kits they need to manage their menstrual health with dignity.
The project has three objectives: The first is to strengthen and improve the knowledge level of 300 local Indigenous women and girls in managing their menstrual health and hygiene.
The second goal is to strengthen education, awareness, and mobilization, as well as community engagement to improving hygiene and sanitation for women in public environments and protecting Indigenous women and girls against the stigma associated with menstruation.
The third objective is to improve the resilience and autonomy of Indigenous women and girls in terms of their access to and use of materials and dignity kits for health management and menstrual hygiene.
We will develop four activities: The first is to organize ten information, education, and communication sessions with 300 Indigenous women and girls, focusing on health management and menstrual hygiene in rural localities in the Masisi-Walikale area.
Secondly, to organize five community forums with local community members in order to raise awareness, mobilize and commit to protecting women against menstruation-related stigmatization, but also improving conditions conducive to managing menstruation in public environments for these Indigenous women.
Thirdly, to organize a training and capacity-building session for Indigenous women and girls on the design and manufacture of reusable and durable sanitary pads.
Fourthly, to distribute dignity kits and hygiene pads, and reinforcing the information and education of 300 women and girls, so they can use them to improve menstrual health and hygiene.
As a result of this project, 300 women and girls in the Masisi-Walikale territory will improve their knowledge and education on menstrual health and hygiene management.
Secondly, community members, including the political-administrative authorities, will improve their the levels of mobilization and engagement concerning menstrual health and hygiene for Indigenous women and girls.
Thirdly, 300 Indigenous women and girls in 5 localities will have capacities and alternatives that improve resilience and enable them to manage menstrual health and hygiene well.
BUILDING CAPACITIES: LONG-TERM GOALS FOR THE PROJECT
Firstly, Indigenous women and girls will be empowered to manage menstrual health and hygiene and act as peer educators and agents of change within their communities.
Secondly, community members, as well as government authorities, who will be mobilized in favor of the menstrual health and hygiene of Indigenous women and girls, will enable a lasting commitment favoring decisions and measures that improve the menstrual health and hygiene of Indigenous women and girls, even beyond the project implementation phase.
In other words, even after the project is complete, women will be able to access menstrual health and hygiene services through capacity-building and making of reusable sanitary pads, and the project's achievements will be felt even beyond implementation.
THE RESILIENCE OF KNOWLEDGE: SUPPORTING INDIGENOUS-LED PROJECTS
Firstly, as you know, Indigenous Peoples are among the most marginalized and excluded social groups, and this exclusion is the root cause of poor means of subsistence, low levels of information and education, underestimation, rejection, and even discrimination of Indigenous Peoples by other communities.
But despite this, Indigenous Peoples have traditional knowledge and practices that are essential to help solve their problems if they get effective support. Direct support for projects led and implemented by Indigenous Peoples allows them to bring their traditional knowledge and values to the table, it helps advance their rights while building self-confidence, self-esteem, and consideration among non-Indigenous communities.
WORKING EVERY DAY FOR A JUST WORLD: THE CASE FOR SUPPORTING FOCUS DROITS ET ACCÈS
For us at Focus Droits et Accès this is our everyday work, campaigning to promote the rights of Indigenous women and girls. And this work requires technical, financial, material, and legal support.
We work in a context where access to funding for organizations led by women, mothers and girls is limited. So there's great need to advance the rights of Indigenous women, and we have our doors wide open to anyone wanting to contribute to building a just and harmonious world where Indigenous women and girls, and other minority, marginalized and excluded groups, exercise and access their rights, in a context of equity and free from all forms of discrimination.
And on this occasion, we appeal to all partners who fund women-led organizations to pay particular attention to organizations led by Indigenous women and thus promote an egalitarian future, a just world, to see the power of a just and egalitarian world in the future
We are an ally to Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities dealing with matters of access to Health and Water and the protection of the right to maintain traditional ways of living in harmony with Nature.