The Common Good
July 2010

Four Questions for Sylvie Mbanga Maunga

by Elizabeth Palmberg | July 2010

  1. How did you begin your work as a lawyer and activist? I think it was my vocation. In my own life, my parents said sometimes, “Women can’t do that, and men can.” I answered all the time, “Why do you think that women can’t do that?” When I got the opportunity to begin work as a lawyer, I was focusing on women’s law. In Congo, the culture said women couldn’t inherit land. We have a great law—but the implementation, that is the problem. I began assisting women pro bono in the east, in Goma. Then for five years I worked in conflict transformation, to make negotiations between rebel groups. You are, all the time, suspected by the government—and the same thing from the rebels.
  2. When did you start working with survivors of sexual violence? During my work in life and peace issues, I used to discuss with a group in Uvira, in the east of the Congo, about the priorities about peace in the area. It was a place where rape was happening every day, but when we asked the question, they didn’t talk about sexual violence against women. I thought, “We have a problem here. Why don’t you talk about it? They’re abusing your wife; they are abusing your daughter.”
  3. How did you, in your work at the Interchurch Organization for Development Cooperation, help survivors? Most of the time when women are raped, the rebel group picks up all the stuff in their house and burns the house. The first step is, we bring them to the hospital. We sign a contract with the hospital and pay, and they treat the women. After that, six months of counseling to get them out of trauma, to tell them this is not the end of life, to not give up. It was not easy. I used to train 60 women in the east of the Congo, for two months, to become professional counselors. Before, we didn’t have many counselors; we brought some from Holland.

    After, we ask what kind of activity you need to do; some ask to begin a business. Before we give them startup funds, we train them how to manage the business and we organize them in groups so that they can help each other. Then the fourth action is justice—we need to give an example to communities and rebel groups to end these atrocities. Sometimes the doctor doesn’t give the affidavit—the evidence—because they are afraid that they also can be a target. And sometimes the judges just say we don’t trust your report. All those rebel groups are involved now in the government army. They are supposed to look for the perpetrators—but they themselves are perpetrators. That doesn’t make sense!
  4. In addition to a professional army and professional police, what else needs to happen? The Congolese conflict is a regional conflict. If you resolve conflict in Congo, make sure you resolve conflict in Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda. Congo has nine neighboring countries, and its problems affect all its neighbors.

    I still believe that the American government has a big role to play in the Congolese conflict. When America says something, everybody listens.


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