Women rising

Notching wins and making gains, women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are improving their lives while protecting nature

In the western reaches of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where well-trodden footpaths supplant roads and native dialects still ring through the forest, women shoulder the burdens of daily life. As the sun rises, they ready food for their husbands and children and set out for the fields bordering their villages. There, they turn the soil they’ve nurtured, plant the land they’ve prepared, and harvest the crops they’ve grown to feed and clothe the people who depend on them. They use breaks in the day to fish, make soap, or weave mats. Then, as the sun sinks, they fix another meal.

Here, women are at the center of the household and the heart of local livelihoods, yet they are often excluded from community-level decision-making about the natural resources on which they rely.

“Women have a wealth of knowledge that we need to tap into, because they play a major role as protectors of the natural resources,” says Nathalie Simoneau, senior gender and social inclusion specialist for WWF, who focuses on mainstreaming gender and social issues into WWF programs. “They have to have a greater voice. They have to be involved in making decisions about how the land is used.”

A woman from Sala Ozwa, a women’s association, helps cultivate a shared field in the village of Mbanzi.

A woman from Sala Ozwa, a women’s association, helps cultivate a shared field in the village of Mbanzi.

With longstanding and critical funding from USAID and other partners, WWF is working with communities throughout the Congo to empower women by teaching them sustainable farming techniques and fire prevention and management; offering them literacy classes; building their leadership and entrepreneurial skills; and ensuring their representation in decision-making bodies. Women are eager to develop leadership expertise for the betterment of their families and communities—and to create a more secure future for their children.

Working with women and their communities is a critical part of protecting the forests and wildlife in this part of the country. Here, the overharvesting of wood for fuel, conversion of wild spaces to agricultural land, overfishing, and excessive hunting of bushmeat (to eat and to sell) are all on the rise to meet the demands of a growing population. Nearby protected areas such as Tumba Lediima Natural Reserve and Salonga National Park harbor an array of wildlife—including endangered forest elephants and bonobos—and uncontrolled deforestation and poaching could harm their already struggling populations. Better land and natural resource management helps take the pressure off fragile ecosystems, reduce reliance on bushmeat and fish, and conserve nature’s bounty.

Until recently, most local development committees governing community farmland, land use, and natural resources consisted only of men. WWF has been instrumental in instituting a new policy that requires these committees to be at least 30% female. Women receive training in integrated agricultural and conservation practices so they can make meaningful contributions to household livelihoods and related decision-making.

One new practice is agroforestry—a technique that incorporates the cultivation and conservation of trees among crops or pastureland for more productive and sustainable land use. The idea is to keep the soil rich and healthy so the land can continue to produce long term, and to avoid the harmful yet common yearly practice of slashing and burning forests to create more agricultural fields.

In recent years, WWF has also supported Congolese women’s fight for land rights, culminating in the summer of 2016 when the government issued a statement reinforcing the law that stipulates women have to be engaged at all levels of decision-making in community forest concessions. Of course, permanently shifting the balance for women both culturally and legally will take time. But a handful of women in these villages have already adopted new leadership roles and agroforestry techniques with gusto. Through their work—and their success—women and men alike are beginning to see the economic, social, and environmental value in cultivating a community of equals.

Victorine Balako

Victorine Balako

As the haze of a late afternoon rain shower dissipates over the village of Mbanzi, a group of local women parade down a red dirt path toward their fields, engaged in a call-and-response song they all know by heart. They rest their machetes and hoes on their shoulders or let them swing beside their ankles—gritty implements contrasting with the vibrant patterns of their skirts.

At the helm of this legion walks Victorine Balako, a sinewy, serious figure with a crop of curly black hair framing her face like an aura. When she speaks—proudly, authoritatively—her cohort listens.

“Whenever I have an idea, I tell them,” Balako says. “I’m also the first one to implement it. And when they see it, they are interested and come do it, too.”

Balako is the president of Sala Ozwa, a women’s association formed in 2015 that’s working with WWF to better use shared farmland through sustainable agricultural practices. The name translates to “do, so that you get”—a fitting mantra for those aiming to advance both economically and culturally.

WWF is helping Sala Ozwa learn how to plant multiple crops in one field to keep the soil fertile year after year and realize larger harvests and profits. The practice is an alternative to the slash-and-burn method traditionally employed to create new fields out of nearby forests—a damaging practice that results in the loss of old-growth forests and can accidentally burn out of control and destroy existing fields.

“Whenever I have an idea, I tell them. I’m also the first one to implement it. And when [other members of Sala Ozwa] see it, they are interested and come do it, too.”

Victorine Balako

The women are currently raising rows of fast-growing hardwood trees, acacia, and cassava all in the same plot of land. Peanuts and other small crops grow among the larger plants, helping to maximize the yields from the field with limited environmental impact, and provide the community with nutritious, high-value food they can sell for income or feed to their families. And many of these trees and crops fix nitrogen in the soil, too, helping to enrich it.

“It’s a harsh life for women in this village,” Balako says. Ashen skeletons of trees once burned to create more open land still dot the landscape. Around her, women bend low and swing their tools into the soil, still singing off and on. A handful of their young daughters wander between crop rows. “When we come to work, we are able to share with one another and spend the day singing to create some joy for ourselves. We work as a community to help each individual succeed.”

Marguerite Nzuzi (seated, center), a gender officer with WWF-DRC, has been instrumental in raising the profile of women’s associations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The women of Sala Ozwa are also gaining equal footing with men in making decisions about natural resources—and in general. The previously all-male local development committee now includes six women, with Balako serving as vice president.

Women are benefiting financially, too. Part of their harvest goes to market, meaning that for the first time, women are generating their own incomes. They say they want profits to go to school fees and toward sewing machines that they can learn to use. Balako, for one, knows exactly what she wants to do with her new income: send her children—both her son and her daughter—to school.

Marthe Lobota

Marthe Lobota

Marthe Lobota stands in the shade of dozens of acacia trees planted in well-kept rows. Across her forehead, she wears a stroke of earthy red paint dotted with specks of white—a traditional adornment worn during special occasions by the indigenous women in the village of Oshwe, near Salonga National Park. Above, the sky threatens rain, but for now thousands of leaves just crinkle in a breeze.

“This piece of land and these trees are ours forever,” Lobota says, surveying the space around her. “We and our children and our grandchildren will benefit.”

Remarkably, 2016 was the first year she could say that. Lobota is president of the Association des Femmes Pygmées de Lokala, a women’s group that focuses on sustainable agriculture and livelihoods. Founded in 2010, the group consists of Batwa, an indigenous group that has historically been marginalized by the dominant Bantu. The women did not legally own the land they worked, despite having paid for it years before. A lack of legal documents signed and stamped by the government meant that a member of the family from which the association had purchased the land could come back at any time to lay claim.

WWF worked with the community and local authorities to redress this inequity, ultimately securing the official land title after months of advocating.

This achievement dovetails with efforts to introduce the Batwa to agroforestry practices—like those used by Sala Ozwa—that will allow them to make their existing fields more productive and sustainable. Fields with fast-growing trees like acacia can provide wood for cooking fuel and furniture. Plants like cassava—a diet staple from root to leaf—can share space with the taller trees and with groundcover crops.

Women work together to flex and soften, dry out, and finally weave a native plant into mats that they later use or sell at markets.

Lobota’s group recently harvested and sold peanuts, earning 150,000 Congolese francs (CF)—about US$95 and an excellent return for women in this region. They decided to reinvest 100,000 CF from their profits into the association, and then distribute the remaining 50,000 CF among the 35 women and two men who care for the land.

Some women are involved in other income-generating activities in addition to farming. Lobota makes soap from scratch to sell in Oshwe, and her Batwa community also owns equipment—which they both use and rent to others—to make palm oil from palm fruit harvested in the vicinity.

“With this association, we are able to bring some money, and the men are able to bring some money, and we can put it together,” Lobota says. “Now we have a say in family affairs.”

Mayala Ngabo

Mayala Ngabo

A flurry of buckets disrupts the opaque waters of a stream making its way through a low point in the savanna near the village of Mpelu. About a dozen women have built makeshift dams of mud and sticks on either end of a 10-yard stretch of water, temporarily sequestering the pint-sized fish within. Some hack chunks of earth out of the bank with machetes and use them to further secure the dams, while others scoop pails of water from between the barriers and pour them through a basket. After about 25 minutes, the once knee-deep water has been drained to reveal the sludgy stream bed. The women bend at the waist to explore the thick mud with their fingers. One by one, they pop back up with surprisingly colorful fish dancing in their hands.

Their fishing practices are a sight to behold and represent a new opportunity for women to earn additional income and therefore better provide for their families. Mayala Ngabo, president of the local Women’s Association for Development, and other women in the community are working with WWF to develop sustainable fishing practices and other activities, such as weaving and traditional dancing, that could serve as attractions for ecotourists along with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to view nearby groups of habituated bonobos.

“There’s been a big change since women have been allowed in the [development] committee. There’s a hope that things will get better for us and that we’ll be received as autonomous people.”

Mayala Ngabo

“It’s a way to put our kids through school, to feed them, and to pay for their medical bills,” Ngabo says in her native Bateke language.

Like other associations working with WWF, the women of Mpelu also practice agroforestry. They have grown wenge trees for hardwood and to attract the caterpillars they like to eat, and they have planted cassava in between. Already, the 10 women in the association are using harvest profits to purchase clothes for themselves and their children—a necessity once funded by men. And women now have the right to participate in the local development committee, too. Recently they persuaded the committee to allow women to join the men in selling products at local markets.

“There’s been a big change since women have been allowed in the committee,” Ngabo says. “There’s a hope that things will get better for us and that we’ll be received as autonomous people.”

Ngabo sees herself as a disseminator of ideas and information, even inviting women who are not formally a part of the association to meetings so they can discuss household issues and support one another in ensuring the village’s children are safe and healthy.  

As the community continues to evolve, the women plan to move forward with their fishing and farming techniques—and be prepared to take advantage of ecotourism opportunities in years to come.

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