2021 Aurora Prize Laureate Julienne Lusenge is a Congolese human rights defender who for years has been supporting the victims of wartime sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as co-founder and president of Women's Solidarity for Inclusive Peace and Development (SOFEPADI) and co-founder of the Fund for Congolese Women (FFC). We talked to her about her fearless activism and the dangers and joys it brings to her life.
Women at Risk and Never-Ending Wars
When you are a woman or a girl in the Democratic Republic of Congo, you are a potential victim of all forms of violence, especially sexual violence. We are at the mercy of all these armed groups that swarm in our country and even the culture that does not allow you to defend your rights, your opinion, that limits you to serving your community.
Our country has been at war for 27 years. In addition to this, there are inter-community wars. These conflicts are instrumentalized by the neighbors, by the companies that come to plunder the mining resources. It is primarily an economic conflict, but the one that exploits small inter-communal conflicts to make the situation worse.
As a journalist, activist, and feminist, when I saw the women on the street with their children, without support, clothes, or food, it hurt a lot. I started to do programs on peace to call on women to welcome other women and not to leave them in the street, in addition to the programs [that] I used to do on women’s and children’s rights. I organized many meetings with traditional chiefs, community leaders of all communities, and with women.
There was a moment when each woman was touched by this war and we could no longer speak to each other. The woman you grew up with – one day, you run into her, and she looks away. I said to myself, “What is happening to us?” And I organized a meeting. In the end, we understood that we, as women, knew nothing about the war. We cried a lot and decided to overcome this and to go to the communities to tell them to stop the war.
Paying the Price
As I was mobilizing people, I found myself targeted by leaders of armed groups who identified me as an opponent of their movements. I had to send my husband and children away. I didn’t want to leave. I thought that all these people were using violence to make us run away so that they were free to do what they want, to kill and rape women.
I stayed, I continued to make my reports and to send memos all over the world. At that time, I was only in my early thirties. I didn’t realize how serious the situation was. One day, I had to leave, because things were not going well and to join my family in Benin. My colleagues joined me shortly afterwards because they had been attacked. My house was completely destroyed. They looted what little we had. Everything was destroyed.
There were times when I felt guilty. It was because of my work that my family was attacked, that we lost everything. My children were threatened with death. But each time, my children and my husband encouraged me to continue my work. It was this support from my husband and family that empowered me to continue.
Solidarity Brings Strength
SOFEPADI works for the promotion and defense of women’s rights. Our work consists of documenting all the violence against women, supporting the victims who report it, helping them do it, informing the population about their rights so that they can report crimes and training them to know their rights to defend themselves. We provide medical, psychological, legal, and judicial support, as well as socio-economic reintegration for the survivors. We help children who are victims of rape or born of rape to return to school and to study at the university if they wish.
We gather the survivors in solidarity groups, so that they can support each other and share their experiences to get out of the situation. We teach them about the laws, so that they become paralegals and can go to court to accompany other survivors. We also organize what we call “justice rooms” in the villages – we bring judges to the villages to try the perpetrators.
We do a lot of work on women’s and children’s rights, but also on peace. We have organized working groups in the villages to address and resolve inter-community conflicts. It is the women who lead these groups. Today, they do not need me or any other colleague in their villages.
There are women today who report the rapes committed by their husbands against their daughters. This is something [previously] unheard of. We have young people who organize campaigns to denounce violence against women. This is a great advance that we have achieved. We have traditional chiefs who accept to have women at their side, which was not the case before.
With my colleagues, I created the Fund for Congolese women, which mobilizes resources, gives them to other organizations, strengthens their capacities, so that they are also able to carry out transformative actions in their villages. When we train victims of sexual violence in Bunia, others are trained in other localities with the funding we give them. We are becoming stronger as a result.
Today, we have a great network of women activists and survivors who work for peace, for women’s rights and to denounce sexual violence. We are not just victims. Congolese women and survivors tell you that they are no longer victims. They are the agents of change because they bring change to their villages.
Julienne Lusenge has empowered thousands of women subjected to wartime rapes. To help fearless modern-day heroes like her to continue their life-changing work, support Aurora at auroraprize.com/en/donate.