For nearly two decades Julienne Lusenge has been battling injustices against women in her home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Originally from the east of the country, notorious for the massive extent of sexual violence committed in its ongoing protracted conflict, Julienne has been forced to flee with her family on several occasions. For having adopted the challenge of defending and empowering women, she has received multiple threats against her life. One of civil society’s most dangerous weapons, Julienne is an indefatigable and inspirational champion for humanity. Her voice is powerful, her stories impactful.
The GCSP had the privilege of hosting Julienne for a day this fall. Through two events, she shared the reality of life for women and civil society groups in the Eastern Congo.
Julienne’s visit was at the tail-end of a speaking tour that included the UN Security Council debates on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (on the women, peace and security agenda) and the World Humanitarian Summit in Geneva. She gave a frontline voice to the story of the women of the DRC, but also to the solutions that the women bring forth themselves. She highlighted the central role of women and organised groups of women in building and sustaining peace.
When asked whether her work would be any different if 1325 had not been passed, she stated clearly that the women were doing the work before 1325 and that the hopes of support that were meant to flow from 1325 did not really materialize. The original vision of 1325, to be a ‘feminist agenda for change’, to provide the legal framework, tools and funding for women’s role in peace and security simply did not happen as expected. Julienne shared a largely felt perspective from her home region: “UN Security Council resolutions are not for us”.
One of Julienne’s hats, for she wears many, is as founder of Solidarité féminine pour la paix et le développement intégral (SOFEPADI), an NGO that provides holistic care to women who are victims of sexual violence. This project does something that the international community has generally been unable to do – stay engaged for the long term. SOFEPADI embraces victims not only for medical and psychology support, but carries the rehabilitation process to job training, education about legal rights, accompanying women through the judicial processes, to court. The women in turn become agents of change themselves, advocates, defenders, warrior peacebuilders. The support is not limited in time, quality or quantity, but rather to what the individual needs – until the wounds heal and dignity is reclaimed.
Another amazing illustration of Julienne’s work is the success of the mobile courts that take the judicial system to the villages – a travelling gavel if you will. SOFEPADI supports these processes in a very practical yet necessary way – they organize and fund the travel, accommodation and board of all actors involved, the accusers, the defendants, the judges, the lawyers, etc. The objective not being limited to convictions, but for being able to testify, to defend oneself in front of the aggressor, to prove to families and communities that the guilt was not the woman’s. The number of cases heard and rulings made on sexual violence cases in these rural courts far outnumbers the provincial courts. One figure shared by Julienne was that over 60 cases were heard in a 10 day period!
Julienne found other activist role to employ her time, or rather the role found her. She is also the Director of the Fonds pour les femmes congolaise (FFC) established in 2007. In seeking funds in the labyrinth full of international and private donors, she often found herself redirecting funds to projects that suited the donors’ needs (dictated by their project criteria on themes or funding size). The FFC is a mechanism into which funds can flow to multiple smaller grassroots projects that funders are often disinterested in supporting but that have massive impact at the grassroots level. To date, the FFC has been able to support hundreds of projects with small sums of USD 1000 to USD 5000 and on themes from family planning to transitional justice. These sums would likely not be granted if sought by the individual organizations.
With so much funding sent to the DRC and so little of it reaching the grassroots organizations, some key takeaways for donors from the conversations with Julienne were around collaboration, reporting, and funding mechanisms.
While hailing male champions for women’s rights, Julienne conveyed a message to women around the world encapsulated in one word: “solidarity”. United, organized and in collaboration is when the impact will take place. “Seul on ne peut rien faire. C’est ensemble que nous marquons notre passage. Nous, les femmes congolaises, on est toujours debout.”
Her messages were many, her stories compelling. A range of emotions were expressed by the audience in the room – laughter, tears, anger, and awe – awe of this little lady who packs such a punch.
Julienne, it is easy to imagine what might wake you at night. But what drives you to rise in the morning? Her answer: “We’re working for future generations.”