Blog March 28, 2024

Anny Modi: Championing Women's Access to Justice in the DRC

  • Justice
  • Pathfinders

Champions of Change are advocates who have impacted their communities, contributing to the advancement of peaceful, just and inclusive societies (SDG16+). An initiative started by the Pathfinders, it features the remarkable efforts of individuals, businesses, and organizations committed to empowering and inspiring members of their communities. This interview from the Champions of Change series was conducted in partnership with Congo Research Group (CRG) at the Center on International Cooperation (CIC)  at New York University. A full audio version is available on their Masolo Ya Kati podcast.

In this interview, Léah Guyot and Alice Viollet speak with Anny Modi, a women’s rights activist in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the founder of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Afia Mama. Together, they explore the status of women’s rights in the DRC, the justice challenges facing women, and the solutions advocated  by Afia Mama.

Question: Anny, what motivated you to become an activist for women’s rights?

Anny: My story begins with my childhood, during which I was very sheltered by my father. However, his death when I was 13 turned my life upside down. When he was alive, I didn’t know the difference between boys and girls. He didn’t teach me to be a girl but a human being.  I saw myself and was seen simply as a child whose only duty was to go to school like her brothers. The loss of my father shattered this illusion. I was suddenly confronted with the social and cultural expectations associated with my gender. 

This change was even stronger when I moved to Goma, in the east of the DRC, during a tumultuous period of tension and Rwandan refugee movements, just two months before the outbreak of the second Congo war in 1998. 

In Goma, my physical appearance was a source of difference. I didn’t fit in with local norms, leading to rejection from my community. The war added another layer of complexity to my situation. Suspicions about my ethnic origin led to humiliating interrogations and checks. 

At 17, pregnant in a war zone and without support, I faced considerable challenges. The problems linked to my appearance and the discrepancy between my behavior and what was expected of a woman continue.

Two months after my 18th birthday, my daughter’s birth marked a decisive turning point in my life. It was then that I resolved to offer her a better world, where women have the right to speak, where they are not forced to take on an identity they don’t want, where they can be themselves, and where they can contribute to the development of their community and realize their personal potential.

After a complicated journey back to Kinshasa, I was detained and interrogated by the intelligence services, who suspected me of being a spy because of my appearance. We then fled to South Africa, where we became refugees. There, I realized that other Congolese women faced challenges due to the language barrier and lack of documentation. I decided to become actively involved in their cause. After a few years, I decided to return to the DRC to found Afia Mama, an organization that gives a voice to women and fights for their rights.

Q: What is your perception of “women’s rights,” and why do you commit to defending and promoting them?

A: I often refer to this quote: “Women’s rights are human rights.” For me, this simply means recognizing the full humanity of women. They have the right to be born, educated, develop, and contribute to their communities independently. For me, women’s rights mean granting them the freedom to make their own choices and not being forced to accept what society wants to impose on them. In the DRC, women’s rights are, for the most part, guaranteed by legal texts. However, if I’m an activist, it’s because these rights are not respected, the laws are not enforced, and those who don’t respect these laws are not punished. That’s why I’m committed to defending women who can’t defend themselves so that these rights are fully enforced, and those who violate them are held accountable before the law.

Q: Which areas of women’s rights are your priorities and closest to your heart as an activist, and why?

A:I am deeply moved by the fight against social injustice, mainly because of my own experiences. Having been confronted with injustice, exclusion, rejection, and stigmatization since childhood, I understand the devastating consequences these injustices have on personal development. Yet, I see these trials as opportunities for strengthening and growth, helping me become more resilient. Today, I am actively dedicated to promoting access to justice for women and girls. I firmly believe that the fight against gender-based violence and the participation of women in decision-making processes are essential to combating social injustice. Indeed, the absence of women in decision-making spheres often hinders progress towards fairer societies. To achieve this, I have invested myself in the protection of the girl child and, in particular, in the fight for access to education and against early marriage.

Q: In the DRC, the eastern part of the country is marked by conflicts and massive displacement, leading to violence and political instability. What are the implications of this crisis on women’s rights, particularly regarding gender-based violence?

A: The context of war in the DRC has become an almost chronic problem, spanning more than 30 years. Massive population displacements and political instability make the situation of women’s rights even more critical. 

Although women are often not directly involved in the causes of conflict, they suffer the most devastating consequences, including sexual violence. Over time, inhuman treatment has intensified. Sexual violence, once present during periods of war, has reached alarming levels, notably with the sexual exploitation of minors in displaced persons camps. Despite our warnings as field activists, the situation was often ignored until the growing number of brothels in the vicinity of internally displaced persons (IDP) camps became impossible to ignore. 

The failure to heed the voices of grassroots activists at the appropriate time creates and sustains a dynamic of reactivity rather than one of effective prevention of disastrous consequences. This prolonged crisis has not only resulted in the loss of human dignity for women and girls but has also trivialized their bodies, making them vulnerable to violence, including from their own communities. 

Platforms like yours provide opportunities to amplify these women’s voices and draw attention to the consequences of conflict on women’s bodies. I insist on the urgent need to hold the perpetrators of this violence to account, whether before the International Criminal Court or before governments. As long as impunity persists, women’s bodies will continue to be exploited and trivialized. We activists are beginning to fear for our safety, not only because we defend women’s rights under challenging contexts, but because we are women.

Q: How do cultural norms in the DRC contribute to the perpetuation of gender-based violence? And how can education reinforce awareness of women’s rights? 

A: Indeed, social norms and practices exert a major influence on the various forms of violence suffered by women and girls in the DRC. Although laws exist to protect them, rumors can often revive these pre-existing norms. This is why our work with social power-holders is crucial. 

What’s more, although the DRC is a secular country, the influence of religion is such that a pastor’s word can be worth more than a legal provision. By working with community leaders, such as traditional chiefs and religious leaders, we aim to change negative social norms into positive attitudes, thereby promoting the safety and well-being of women and girls. Communication plays a key role in this process, deconstructing damaging social norms and replacing them with correct information. 

We also strive to target the consequences of misinformation, hate messages, and rumors, which are often based on beliefs rather than verifiable facts. For instance, if you live in a community that accepts early marriages and a woman over 18 years old isn’t married, rumors will start circulating that she’s promiscuous, which is why she’s not married. Similarly, concerning women’s political participation, there are rumors that women who engage in politics are promiscuous. This prevents women from getting involved in politics, yet it’s by engaging in politics that they can find themselves at decision-making tables.

Education, whether formal or informal, has historically contributed to social inequalities in our society. In the past, educational opportunities were limited for girls. Today, although things have changed, persistent social norms continue to limit opportunities for girls and women. 

To remedy this situation, we have to work on several fronts. First, we make parents and families aware of the importance of education for girls. Secondly, we educate children about their rights so that they can denounce discriminatory practices. 

At the same time, we work with the education system to improve school curricula, ensuring that they promote gender equality and children’s rights. Finally, we work with the media and artists to spread messages of equality and inclusion, making these ideas accessible to a broad audience. Because education is the key to change: to claim your rights, you first need to know them, which means literacy and awareness-raising. By also advocating for greater participation by women in governance processes, we affirm that education is now a necessity, enabling everyone, men and women alike, to aspire to positions of responsibility.

Q: Access to justice for women is often complex. A report by the World Justice Project indicates that women face more obstacles than men in 70 percent of countries, with additional challenges in over half of the world’s nations. What are the main challenges for women in the DRC regarding access to justice? 

A: Access to justice for women in the DRC represents a major challenge on several levels. Firstly, many women, particularly those living in rural areas, face obstacles linked to ignorance of their rights and duties. Due to a lack of education and awareness, they are often unaware of the legal remedies available to deal with the injustices they suffer. Moreover, illiteracy remains a widespread problem among the female population, making it difficult for women to access legal information and understand legal procedures. So there’s the challenge of being unaware of one’s rights and the possibility of recourse to justice, but at times, justice is simply far away from those subject to it. Indeed, in many remote areas, physical access to the courts is also limited by geographical remoteness and lack of adequate transport. In Tshopo province, for example, women may have to travel several hundred miles to reach the relevant courts.

Economic power is another major obstacle to women’s access to justice. The costs associated with seeking justice, such as court fees, legal fees, and travel expenses, can be prohibitive for many women, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Furthermore, corruption within the justice system and informal arrangements often compromise the fairness of legal proceedings, particularly in cases of sexual violence and early marriage. These practices contribute to impunity for perpetrators of crimes against women and hinder women’s access to fair and effective justice.

Finally, despite the state’s efforts to improve access to justice, notably by deploying magistrates to remote areas, many obstacles persist. To overcome these challenges, it is necessary to engage with social norms and community leaders, strengthen women’s legal education, improve physical and financial accessibility to the courts, and fight corruption within the judicial system. That’s why, as a women’s rights advocate, I place particular emphasis on women’s access to justice through the work we do at Afia Mama with our partners at KTF-Lawyers.

Q: What are the initiatives of Afia Mama to facilitate women’s access to justice and to help them understand and use the law to defend their rights? 

A: We are committed to a number of initiatives. Firstly, we’re working to make legal texts more accessible both in terms of content and form. By “form,” I mean the language used and the means of disseminating these texts because the more the population is informed, the more women are aware, the more they will be able to denounce injustices, and the more justice will be able to intervene effectively, thus reducing these problems. Our objective is to restore to women the power the laws grant them.

At Afia Mama, we have adopted an innovative strategy in partnership with a law firm, KTF-Lawyers. We have adapted our approach to the socio-cultural context to reduce the stigmatization of women seeking legal aid. For example, when women seek help at legal clinics, they are perceived as victims of violence, which often leads to stigmatization and rumors and also discourages other women from seeking help. That’s why we’ve changed our approach by partnering with a law firm where women are treated like any other client, significantly reducing stigma and improving the outcome of legal decisions.

We have developed a partnership between Afia Mama, our NGO known for its fight against gender-based violence, and a law firm, KTF-Lawyers. At Afia Mama, when a woman approaches us about domestic violence, we make sure to provide psychological and medical follow-up but also refer survivors to the law firm. So, rather than going to legal clinics where their situation might be publicly exposed, we ensure that the handling of their cases is discreet and professional. This approach guarantees women’s dignity and safety, particularly when they are confronted with situations of domestic and sexual violence. In addition, it has considerably improved the outcome of legal proceedings, as it also reduces the costs associated with access to justice and avoids the delays often observed when cases are handled as part of an NGO-funded project.

And now, in parallel with this approach, we have set up the “welfare house,” a “one-stop shop.” The notable difference is that our welfare house doesn’t go by that name on the outside. It’s discreet, available, and fully equipped. When a woman’s safety is at risk (for example, if she’s in danger of being taken back to her abuser after turning her own family in), we guarantee her safety by temporarily offering to shelter her in this house. During her stay in our welfare home, the woman receives full support, with the presence of a psychologist and a social worker. If she wants medical care, we arrange for the necessary medical assistance. This approach guarantees the woman’s human dignity, reduces stigmatization, and enhances her protection.

This allows us to see the legal process through to the end. We have seen significant results with this approach. We have obtained several judgments, convictions, and even reparations. In comparison, national statistics show that court decisions in cases of gender-based violence rarely reach more than 10 percent. As an NGO, our new approach has enabled us to achieve a rate of court decisions well above the national average, up to 65 percent in the cases we have handled. 

In addition, alongside this approach, we also excel in advocacy. Once we take on a case, we identify decision-makers who can ensure that the case is well-handled, without any issues of corruption that could jeopardize the process. If there are any, lawyers will sometimes recuse judges or prosecutors until we obtain a judicial decision.

Q: How does your involvement in Congo connect to your participation in international forums like the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)? Are there differences between these two domains, and how do your experiences in the Congo influence your role in these international spaces?

A: Personally, my experience of participating in international forums as a women’s rights activist has enabled other actors, particularly DRC partners, to gain a better understanding of the social problems and challenges facing Congolese women. This has facilitated a better orientation of support towards the DRC, focusing on areas requiring particular attention. As an activist, I welcome this contribution, as it helps to bridge the gap that sometimes exists between the reality on the ground and what is presented by the Congolese government. We don’t oppose governments but complement them in highlighting what has been achieved and what remains to be done. However, it sometimes happens that our points of view as front-line players are not immediately taken into account or seriously considered, which can have regrettable consequences. Yet our contribution is essential to preventing problems in the future.

Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see that our voice is taken more seriously at home when we are heard internationally, as when I speak at the United Nations Security Council. This reinforces the legitimacy of civil society and women’s rights activists in the Congo in the eyes of local decision-makers. 

Another significant example is women’s participation in peace processes. When we point out the absence of women in these processes at the international level, it prompts the warring parties to consider including women in their delegations. In this way, our international involvement helps ensure that our concerns are taken into account by decision-makers and that our proposals for resolving the problems that affect us are seriously considered.

Q: What achievements in your work are particularly close to your heart and would you like to highlight?

A: The publication of the Maputo Protocol in the official gazette after ten years of struggle was a crucial moment, paving the way for women’s access to services that are rightfully theirs. I’d also like to mention my atypical personal background. Having interrupted my studies on several occasions, I didn’t obtain an academic degree, but my experience has enabled me to develop an expertise that today allows me to give a voice to others. 

The most important thing for me is to be able to impact the lives of thousands of people. With Afia Mama, we have over 1,500 volunteers. Knowing that you’re helping to improve the status of others, make their voices heard, solve their problems, put a smile on their face, food on their table, a roof over their head… I think these achievements bring a sense of accomplishment of a divine mission.

Q: Could you tell us more about the projects you’re currently working on?

A: We are currently involved in a project to combat violence against women in the Tshopo province. The project has several components, including access to justice, economic empowerment, vocational training, and the popularization of legal texts. This project is particularly significant for Afia Mama because, for the first time, our experts, in collaboration with lawyers such as Frédéric Kwamba Tshingej of KTF Lawyers, have drafted a law born out of our observations working with women, setting out practical ways of combating gender-based violence and promoting rights of access to justice for the province of Tshopo. This law was passed and promulgated on April 10, 2023, by the Governor of Tshopo. We are now working on popularizing this law.

In parallel, we are working on projects to combat early marriage in the Katanga region in the southeast of the country, as well as on women’s participation in peace processes at the community level in North Kivu. We also carry out humanitarian operations in the north of the country and the Littouris province. In other regions, such as Équateur and Kinshasa, our projects focus on the popularization of laws, the fight against gender-based violence and sexual exploitation, as well as sexual and reproductive health (access to contraceptive methods, comprehensive abortion care, and care for sexually transmitted diseases). 

We also advocate at the local, provincial, and national levels for women’s rights to land and inheritance and for the revision of the penal code regarding access to abortion to widen the exceptions. We are also launching a project to combat misinformation and hate speech. 

Finally, we are about to finalize the construction of our own welfare home in Kinshasa, which will enable us to provide a safe and appropriate place to support women in need.

Q: Finally, what is your hope for the future of women in the DRC? What changes and improvements do you deem essential to creating a more equitable and promising future for women in your country, and how do you plan to contribute to realizing these aspirations?

A: I always see the glass as half full and note that we already have many rights guaranteed in our legislation. My hope is that we can make progress thanks to a better understanding of our battles, which are not about women fighting men but rather about social balance and the equitable sharing of power and resources. More and more men are joining our cause, which is encouraging. 

Only justice can uplift a nation. My hope is that we can have an independent, impartial judiciary that has worked to enforce the law, not to cater to the personal interests of certain individuals. As an organization, we continue to work by popularizing the law, conducting advocacy, and raising public awareness. The more people understand their rights and demand quality public services, the more our society can progress. With a bit of hope, we’ll end up living in a Congo that’s better than the Congo of yesterday and the Congo of today.

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