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Thousands of women in DR Congo learn to solve grassroots conflicts

Beatrice Kulenga Makasi, center, testified that Melanie Mafinga, not pictured, helped her resolve a financial issue with her daughter. Also pictured are Patience Tomboka, left and Blandine Pesa, right who are members of the Women Situation room.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) last year, Blandine Pesa told the story of a conflict she resolved between a husband and his wife in their home city of Kikwit. It went like this.

Esther asked her husband Alphonse (real names not used for their privacy) to pick up 7,000 francs ($2.54) that she had earned through her participation with a community savings group. He did, but then he promptly chose to drink 2,000 francs worth of alcohol with her money.

When Alphonse came home, Pesa continues, Esther asked him for money to buy flour. He told her he left her money on the table.

“You didn’t leave the money there,” Esther protested.

“If you say there wasn’t any money, and I say there is, I’m going to go and hang myself,” he countered.

Still a bit tipsy, Alphonse stood up and his phone fell. The phone protector popped open and the remaining 5,000 francs fell out.

“You said you didn’t have money, but there it is,” Esther exclaimed. She was angry. “I’m going to my parents’ house! The marriage is over.”

Alphonse asked his wife for forgiveness, but she would not forgive him. Seeing how angry his wife was, he contacted Pesa, a peacemaker he knew, to see if she could help them resolve the situation.

Pesa is one of 50 women from the Communauté des Eglises de Frères Mennonites au Congo (CEFMC; Mennonite Brethren Church of Congo), who have taken multiple peacebuilding trainings from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) staff since 2019. Those 50 women have trained 155 others, including some men.

Colette Kuvingila Kuyima, 60 years old, president of the Women Situation Room, showing the uniform the women wear.

Every month, these peacemakers meet in one of three groups, each known as a Women Situation Room (WSR). They share stories like the one Pesa has told to encourage each other and to learn together. Their goal is primarily to resolve conflicts before they lead to violence, says Jacob Sankara, MCC peacebuilding coordinator in DR Congo.

“It is the word of God. Peace comes from God himself,” says Melanie Mafinga, a WSR member who explains why she gives her personal time to help others. “I’m very happy when I see them living together in a good relationship.”

Joining the CEFMC women in peacebuilding work in Kikwit are women from Communauté Mennonite au Congo (CMCo; Mennonite Church of Congo), who also have WSRs in Tshikapa, a city about 220 miles away. The women from the two denominations, which have not always seen eye to eye, built connections as they trained together.

Members of the Women Situation Room gather for a group photo with Jacob Yoder, representative for DR Congo, left, Gracia Felo, MCC program assistant and Linda Espenshade and Christy Kauffman, far right of the MCC Communications Team, who are wearing clothing the women sewed for them as gifts.

Members of WSRs all over the country are using a variety of techniques for dealing with conflict, including conflict analysis, mediation, negotiation, reconciliation and arbitration, says Sankara, who explains each concept in detail during the trainings. In early 2024, MCC was supporting 67 groups with 3,602 members, the majority in eastern DR Congo where armed groups are active, he says.

Pesa chose mediation as her method to resolve the situation.

She met with Alphonse and heard his side of the story. He confessed that he drank a lot. Esther, who initially refused to meet with Pesa, eventually told her side of the story. Working with each person, Pesa helped them think about the conditions for reconciliation.

Sankara explains that the mediator’s job is to help the two parties figure out what they can give and what they need from the other person to be sure the reconciliation is genuine. Each person who wronged the other must take responsibility and demonstrate sincere regret.

When Pesa brought the couple together, they were both prepared to apologize for their parts in the conflict and to forgive the other. Alphonse promised to stop drinking as an indicator of his sincerity. And since then, Pesa says, he no longer drinks.

Melanie Mafinga, 53 years old, trader, center, resolved a financial issue that Beatrice Kulenga Makasi (not pictured) had with her daughter. Mafinga and Patience Tomboka, right, are members of the Women Situation Room of Kikwit.

Sometimes forgiveness is all that can be offered, says Mafinga, who resolved a years-long conflict between a mother and her daughter over an unpaid debt. “The money is gone, but forgiveness is everywhere, and peace is remaining. The Bible says if someone comes to ask forgiveness, we should forgive them.”

Women are particularly strong peacemakers in DR Congo, says Sankara, even though WSR leaders are realizing that men’s involvement is important too. In Congolese society, men’s support for a project is critical and the best way to gain their support for WSR is for men and women to have the same understandings.

Through this project, women are attuned to working on resolving small conflicts that, if ignored, can fester and grow.

Solving problems on the grassroots level is important in DR Congo, which has faced decades of violence caused by warring armed groups, especially in the eastern provinces. “Big conflicts happen because problems at the grassroots level are not solved,” says Sankara.

As the WSR gains a positive reputation in an area, the members sometimes are empowered to ask local law enforcement for help and at other times to offer the group’s assistance. In one situation, Sankara says, the WSR was able to withdraw a case from the police and solve the problem on their own.

In October 2023, police from the eastern town of Minova in South Kivu Province invited three WSR members and representatives from two other peace groups to meet with the leaders of two opposing armed groups. The violence between the two groups caused the main road to be blocked. Together, the peacemakers worked with the armed groups until the groups stopped fighting and opened the road, Sankara says.

Being in a WSR empowers women, Sankara says. As they have gained confidence and experience in solving conflicts and speaking in public, some women are now elected officials in their local governments.

In Kikwit, women are getting involved in mentoring teen girls and providing a safe place for displaced women to register complaints against field owners who sexually exploit them in exchange for food, he says.

Not every conflict can be resolved, the women say. Sometimes it takes a long time of gently urging the opposing sides toward reconciliation. However, many issues have been resolved, and that gives them encouragement to keep on working for peace.

 By Linda Espenshade, news coordinator for MCC U.S.

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