Julienne Lusenge is a Congolese human rights defender, co-founder and president of Women's Solidarity for Inclusive Peace and Development (SOFEPADI) and co-founder of the Fund for Congolese Women (FFC), who has been supporting the victims of wartime sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for years. Her boundless courage and tireless activism have shone a light on the desperate plight of thousands of Congolese women subjected to horrific sexual abuse amidst the civil war in the country, exposing the perpetrators and bringing them to justice.
Born in 1958 in Watsha (currently the Congolese province of Haut-Uélé), Julienne Lusenge was raised by the people who valued open communication in all its forms. “My father taught me to speak and to defend my ideas. I grew up in a family where it was only natural for my mom and dad to talk to each other, even if they didn't agree. From childhood, my parents taught me to fight against injustice, not to see others suffer and go away,” recalls Lusenge.
Not surprisingly, journalism became her initial career choice. In 1978, Julienne Lusenge got her first job at the Radio Candip, a community radio station. To collect stories, she visited remote villages in the provinces of Ituri and North Kivu. “Being a journalist gave me access to local villages in a more intimate way. Women knew me and trusted me. I saw glaring inequalities: a woman who did not dare to speak just because she was in front of a man or the traditional chief; women who were abused but who could not talk about it for fear of further violence. I thought to myself, if I have had the opportunity to be educated and have the opportunity to speak, why not continue to help other women speak for themselves?”.
The patriarchal shackles of traditional culture were drawn even tighter as a result of constant civil unrest and ethnic conflict in the DRC, and wartime rapes remain a constant and tragic fixture in the country, despite the efforts of numerous humanitarians like 2017 Aurora Humanitarian and 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege. “The DRC, my home, has been a place of conflict for decades. I saw my neighboring province of Ituri dissolve into conflict in 1997, when the fault lines between ethnic groups were exploited by warlords and community leaders,” explains Julienne Lusenge. “Being ignored due to my own ethnicity in places I had once been welcomed was deeply painful. But it also deepened my empathy for those I had connected with for so many years.” She felt she couldn't give up on them.
“We started to receive shocking reports of armed groups raping women in the communities. It was too much: I had to get involved. I began to document cases and challenge local leaders of armed groups. I begged them to stop using violence against women as a weapon of war. This is how we became known in the international community, the “rape capital of the world.” I knew that I could not – could not – rest until my beloved country was known differently,” says Julienne Lusenge. This was a turning point for her, the one that completed her transformation from an observer, albeit an impassioned one, to an activist.
In April 2000, along with seven other journalists, Julienne Lusenge co-founded a new organization called Women's Solidarity for Inclusive Peace and Development (SOFEPADI). Its goal is to make sure the Congolese government and the UN recognize the devastation of rape and its use as a weapon of war and to support the survivors of sexual violence. Part of SOFEPADI is a hospital and mobile clinics providing holistic medical and psychological care to survivors of sexual violence. In 2010–2020, the medical center received and treated 6,284 people, including 567 internally displaced people. SOFEPADI also encourages socio-economic reintegration with income-generating activities, apprenticeships, and school reintegration, and provides the survivors with legal advice and representation in court.
One of the advantages of being a journalist was an impressive network of connections Julienne had, so she decided to put it to good use. “I began to reflect: How do women heal from these atrocities? By connecting to each other. I started to link survivors together and build relationships between them through self-help groups and other activities. Once connected, these women were able to build a new community in the face of being shunned by their own. This is such a powerful example of female leadership at work and helped to keep me motivated even in moments of utter despair and doubt.”
Financing such a large-scale operation in a war-ravaged country isn’t easy, and in 2007, Julienne Lusenge co-founded a second organization, the Fund for Congolese Women (FFC). It raises funds from multiple international donors, then directs this money to reputable grassroots organizations focused on eliminating sexual and gender-based violence and providing economic empowerment, among other topics. FFC closely collaborates with women and girls, transforming those who are cast as ‘victims’ into agents of change.
Interestingly, this local-oriented approach is still perceived by many as somewhat innovative. For Julienne Lusenge, it makes perfect sense to allocate funding to the activists on the ground who know the issues inside out and are therefore capable of designing and implementing the most impactful initiatives. Not everyone in the humanitarian community agrees, though. “In the four decades I’ve been an activist, one of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered is the international community’s resistance to fund national NGOs,” laments Julienne Lusenge. “There is a lot of funding intended to help the Congo. But that funding stays with international organizations, within their administrations.”
The other big concern, of course, is her personal security and well-being. Leading an NGO is hardly a lucrative career choice, so Julienne Lusenge struggles with both security threats and increasing economic challenges. “I have risked my own safety to denounce injustice and impunity because I documented hundreds of cases of sexual violence and challenged local leaders of armed groups. My family has had to relocate on several occasions due to threats and attempts on my life. Many of these ex-rebels are now integrated into the national police and military, leaving me in an incredibly precarious situation when I deal with these bodies,” explains the activist.
In 2020, the situation was further exacerbated by the global outbreak of COVID-19. Julienne Lusenge was saddened but not surprised that it turned out to be women who carried the heaviest burden – again: “In our culture, women are the ones who tend to the sick. Women have been forced to attend to the needs of their families with no means to do so, which exposed them to domestic violence, sexual violence, and all kinds of violence. This is why we chose to support projects focusing on COVID-19 and gender-based violence prevention early on in 2020.”
The pressure is unbelievable, yet she doesn’t crumble, finding a source of comfort and inspiration in seeing the changes in the lives of the surviving women and girls she helps. “The joy of the beneficiaries and their family members revives my heart. It is not normal that our children are born into war, grow up in war, and grow old in war. One of my goals is to create an ‘army’ of young feminists who know their rights, who aren’t afraid to use their voice and influence, and who make changes they want in their lives and communities.”