In December, one of the HEAL Africa counselors was dispatched from Goma to Lubutu to advocate for a woman that needed legal help. The woman was a patient in a hospital where a nurse raped her. She was poor and powerless to prosecute him without HEAL Africa's help.
When the counselor intervened, the hospital administration fired the nurse, who was sorely indignant at losing his job. He had been well paid, so his family lost their standard of living. Tribal leaders in the local villages saw this as a grave injustice against the man, and began to make dire threats to kill the counselor, and they promised to band together and sabotage HEAL Africa's operations throughout the region.
This story has been unfolding since last December, when a huge transformation was born in North Kivu and Maniema. This is political change rooted from the ground up, organized by HEAL Africa in partnership with the American Bar Association. Their work is bearing fruit.
The ABA/HEAL Africa partnership teaches people about the DRC constitution passed in 2006. The new law defines rights for women and children; it defines "abuse", and clarifies inheritance. Rape is now illegal in all contexts, and young girl cannot be married to an older man. They provide legal counsel for victims of sexual violence, and support them through the prosecution. ABA/HEAL Africa also works with local judges and lawyers to create a justice system where rapists go to jail and sentences stick.
This is Mama Muliri, who appeared in an EcoJustice diary last May. She is a community organizer who founded HEAL Africa's Heal My People program. She brings the best of grassroots activism to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Muliri responded to the threats by going to Lubutu herself and facing the tribal leaders eye to eye. As promised, they met her brandishing machetes and guns. They chanted and threw rocks at her, but she stood her ground, told them about the new constitution passed in 2006, and explained how the law differed from the tribal customs. She demanded that they comply with the law, and asked them to attend a HEAL Africa conference on conflict transformation.
A tribal chief holds the keys to changing society in his village. A chief's voice trumps the national law, which is often not trusted or understood, because it is written by unknown people in remote places. The chief determines the de facto law and chooses what is ethical and moral. He defines the values in his community. Tribal elders advise him, and they and act as judge and jury for all local disputes. The chief's word is final.
Mama Muliri's act of defiance marked the beginning of a rich collaboration between HEAL Africa and the tribal leaders. They are now working together to create a new future for the Congo.
HEAL Africa and the ABA conducted three days of meetings where the tribal leaders learned about the new DRC constitution and how traditional practices conflict with the law. The chiefs worked together to address the conflicts near their villages, and formed strategies to transform the regional conflict and protect their villages. The chiefs took to this cooperative organization like fish to water, and saw a new way that was better for their communities. The chiefs chose to enforce the new law en mass, and they had a demonstration and march through the city to proclaim it so.
The tribal leaders now regularly network with HEAL Africa and with each other to serve and protect their people. Muliri works closely with the tribal leaders throughout the North Kivu and nothern Maniema regions, and continues to hold conflict transformation seminars about legal issues and strategy to resolve long term conflicts; right now, they are implementing an intensive program to keep their youth out of the militas.
A few days ago, HEAL Africa USA learned that a chief from the Lubutu area collected eight new victims of sexual violence, six women and two men, and immediately notified HEAL Africa so they could be treated and transported to the hospital in Goma. That is a far cry from threatening counselors with rocks and machetes.
HEAL Africa has a network of "safe houses" in the areas surrounding the war that provide support for the local communities. They are first-responders to victims of war violence; they educate people about HIV/AIDS, and administer immediate prophylactic care to rape victims before they are transported to the hospital. HEAL Africa works with their Nehemiah Committees, cooperative groups made up of respected Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Kimbunguist -- -- leaders that are committed to changing the future of the DRC. Much grassroots work is done through these networks, and the "safe house" role is expanding with each collective success.
HEAL Africa recently suffered from large funding cuts, and the grassroots programs were cut to skeleton crews on July 1 in order to keep the hospital open. If you have the means and desire, please donate here.
Since the colonial period, empires have plundered, drilled, and mined the African continent with patent disregard for the dignity, living conditions, and human rights of native populations. Today, Africa suffers from severe deforestation and drought, erosion, famine, and disease: UNEP describes the continent as one of the region's most vulnerable to the ravages of climate change. This essay is the part of a series by the Daily Kos EcoJustice Team on environmental injustice in Africa.
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