Women are still under represented at decision-making levels in the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC’s) institutions, reduced to the role of house help and have even become victims of repeated sexual violence, women's representatives said on Tuesday during the International Women's Day.
"Though it is the woman who is, in many cases, the sole breadwinner of the family in times of crisis aggravated by war, she is the first victim of sexual violence," said Marie-Ange Lukiana Mufwankol, a senator and vice president of the Parti du peuple pour la reconstruction et le developpement. Congolese President Joseph Kabila heads Mufwankol's party.
The frustrations of Congolese women are evident in the Senate, which is debating a new constitution ahead of elections, due sometime this year.
Mufwankol said women were still under represented in such bodies despite the country being a signatory to international treaties and conventions aimed at protecting and promoting women's rights.
The UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) gender adviser, Miranda Kabefor, told IRIN that women were far from attaining 30 percent representation in decision-making bodies of the government - the Senate, the National Assembly, and heads of public firms. She said more concrete action was needed.
"Women no longer want simple slogans or vain words by pretentious [official] authorities," she said.
There were, she said, just nine women among the 61 ministers and vice ministers in the transitional government, and only 60 women sit in the two chambers of the 620-member parliament. The same situation prevails in state-owned firms.
One reason for the low representation of women in state bodies could be a reflection of their low enrolment in school. UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) statistics illustrate this.
According to UNICEF, 49 percent of Congolese girls, or less than one in two girls, go to school. However, their enrolment has improved as a result of a yearlong UNICEF campaign titled "All girls to School". This campaign consists of offering registration and a year's free tuition scholarship to girls of school age.
"During the 2004 campaign, the number of girls going to school surpassed 50.3 percent, which is a huge improvement," Mohamed Fall, the UNICEF education programme administrator, said.
"Within the network of Congolese women, we have been able to end this idea that boys must be favoured by sending only them to school and keeping girls to do housework in preparation for a sometimes precarious marriage," Kabefor added.
For Solange Kambidi, the president of the Women's Union, this kind of thinking propels many men to forbid their wives, even if they have attained university education, from working in offices for fear they may be harassed.
"Harassment is a reality in our society, but it is the very men who stop their wives from working who are the ones harassing other women," Kambidi said.
However, women do sometimes harass men sexually. The network of women is conscious of this and warned: "Women should, above all, tell the truth about their ability to worsen the problem with their scanty dressing or their attractiveness," Kambidi added.
Congolese women are fighting back. They are demanding that the family code be modified.
"Women are fighting, at the level of the minister of human rights and national solidarity, with the view to obtaining a change in the law that set out working conditions and that women must get their husbands' permission before they can travel or get jobs," Kabefor said.