By Tendaishe Tlou
Since the 1990s, the world has made significant strides in women empowerment, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which embarked on an extensive program to foster gender equality through enactment of gender-sensitive electoral laws and policies in the same vein. The D.R.C acceded to CEDAW in October 1986. Probably one of the pioneer African countries to do so. The increasing number of gender theories with a deliberate bias towards women empowerment has apparently prompted dramatic changes, and has become something of a mantra underlying democracy and governance issues. Yet, reality is in stark contrast with the intent. The patriarchal culture remains a major obstacle in determining how women are being marginalised in electoral processes in the face of imposed confinement to gender roles, patriarchy, and poverty which claim a toll for women at professional level. A correlation of these obstacles, combined with gender insensitive laws and policies, culture, gender-based discrimination, stereotyping and poverty against women immensely result in deep-seated disempowerment for women politicians. I explore the theme that the existing perspectives-which I prefer to call the glass ceiling-tend to correlate these intertwined barriers into a series of disempowerment for women which in turn assume questions of marginalisation at professional level and top echelons of power. In this case, it is imperative to put into cognisance that in terms of women empowerment, an eclectic, pragmatic and analytical approach is required to comprehend complex processes that combine material, ideational, international, domestic, historical and contemporary factors in ways in which the DRC assumes an effective framework wherein the participation of women in electoral and governance processes is guaranteed. This article also seeks to provide lasting solutions and recommendations to the concerns raised in the analysis. To recommend solutions, researchers need to continue exploring the challenges which prevent women from fully participating in democratic processes in Africa. Despite the much-celebrated elections in the D.R.C in December 2018, very few candidates were women and only 44 secured places of the 500 seats in the National Assembly (8.8%). Candidates for both the National Assembly and Presidency were predominantly men. It remains a struggle for women to participate in the race for public office. The article seeks to unpack the experiences of women in the 2018 D.R.C elections, paying particular attention to the challenges and obstacles they faced in fully participating in this benchmark process.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has a long history of conflict and destabilisation. The DRC was first established in 1908 as a Belgian colony and eventually gained its independence in 1960 (Africa: Congo, 2016). In 2018, the DRC’s elections saw the removal from office of the long-time serving leader, Joseph Kabila and ushered in a new administration led by the opposition leader, President Felix Tshisekedi. However, despite the change in administrations, women are still under-represented in the political landscape, majors and careers over the past 60 years of attaining independence in the DRC. The skewed representation of women in the 2018 elections has raised a lot of concern. This has also become a bone of contention in as far as women empowerment and gender equality are concerned. This paper explores the broad array of explanations for the absence of women in the top echelons of political careers citing both the grassroots and other barriers that are instrumental in preventing women from rising through the ranks in as much as men do.
As the DRC gears for the 2023 elections, I explore the theme that some of the proposed explanations in this paper are without merit and to some extent controversial whilst some play a pivotal role in a dynamic interaction of factors such as patriarchy, poverty, culture, gender-based discrimination among others. One suggests that the very nature of gender equality may in fact contribute to the removal of women from the mainstream and recommendations for reforms in culture, education and law to address this problem are also proffered. This paper is analysed under the auspices of the liberal feminist theoretical framework and its educational implications in light of the 2018 elections and new dispensation which once again gives us an opportunity to review the rights and opportunities of women particularly on political and governance platforms.
The liberal feminist theory amplifies concepts related to equal opportunities, socialisation, gendered roles and discrimination. Feminists who subscribe to this theory proffer strategies inclusive of changing attitudes, socialisation beliefs and practices and most importantly make use of available legislation (Acker, 1987). These accurately fits into the current DRC’s context to review some laws so that they are aligned with the new dispensation, increasing women’s prospects that augment equal representation in the country’s political and governance issues.
Key words: Gender, gender equality, stereotyping, and marginalisation.
The Secretariat of the Pacific Community (2011) defines gender in terms of the qualities associated with men and women that are social, and cultural than biologically determined. Gender also includes the way in which society differentiates appropriate behaviour, duties and access to power by men and women. This implies that although gender expectations vary from society to society they can also change over time. Gender differences and relations tend to underlined by a strong element of inequality between men and women and are strongly influenced by ideology. In other words, gender refers to social attributes that are acquired during socialisation or association which define roles and needs connected to being male or female. These are the same elements which foment gender-based discrimination, marginalisation, patriarchy, and stereotyping.
In essence, such learnt attributes are expressed through power dynamics, resources and privileges between men and women which are inculcated at grassroots level, find their way into educational processes and inevitably have a bearing in professional fraternities which this paper seeks to explore. These elements are what I prefer to call the ‘glass ceiling’ because they are obstacles which prevent women from going beyond ordinary careers. These factors seem to be invisible, normal and ‘non-existent’ in DRC which poses a threat to the ongoing efforts to entrench gender equality in electoral and governance processes.
There is not one unanimously agreed upon definition of gender equality. According to the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (2011) it means that all human beings, regardless of sex, have equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities in both the private and public sphere despite being born male or female. Putting into consideration different needs, priorities, circumstances and aspirations of women and men, gender equality is done in order to correct the historical imbalances and persistent marginalisation of women.
As an entry point, I commence by saying that the major bone of contention is that the patriarchal mind-set is not yet entirely uprooted from the Congolese society in particular, but in Africa in general. This culture is immensely precipitated in modern socio-political affairs in which political leaders are still being treated as godfathers, ruling by some sort of divine ordinance in control of everything. In the patriarchal society, the participation of women has been reduced to that of children or servants who are expected to obey their elders and serve them with extreme subordination (World Bank, 2006). Scandalously, after the international declarations on gender equality formulated several years ago but not yet realised: the Beijing Platform for Action for Gender equality (1995) and the Dakar Education for All (EFA) Framework of Action (2000) there are still very few women pursuing affluent careers in law, medicine and politics. For the DRC, only 8.8% women politicians securing their places in the National Assembly is more than worrying.
More so, the reason why there is a correlation between a high female population and less of them immensely involved in political and governance issues is because there is the salience of indirect and direct gender-based negative laws in the DRC which reinforce existing gender inequalities. Laws for proportional representation have not been deliberately institutionalised and do not favour the participation of women in governance and political issues. It is unfair that electoral laws treat women and men the same without stipulating issues related to proportional representation and contestation. I am of the view that law in the DRC electoral laws follow patriarchy in light of the marginalisations of prominent female politicians.
From my angle of analysis, gender negative or insensitive electoral laws entrenched in persistent patriarchy has had a negative and profound ripple-effect to the confidence, participation and advancement of most women into higher echelons of power. Women are discouraged by the difficulties and obstacles they encounter when they want to contest for office. For these reasons, many women prefer to remain on the side-lines of political processes and occupy minimal roles in electoral processes, coupled with mixed feelings of fear and hope that the system will relinquish its grip. Structural violence is reinforced by patriarchy. For example, the Men-only United Nations Gender Equality Conference that was conferred in Iceland raised so much questions such as ‘has feminism advanced so far that women’s voices no longer need to be heard?’ (Buist, 2014).
Earlier on in the script I traversed that the very nature of gender equality may in fact contribute to the relegation of women from the mainstream governance and political processes. In the context of the DRC’s 2018 elections, it is indicative that men still do what they think is best for women because there are still very few women represented in strategic positions which should be used to empower women. The DRC national assembly convenes with 8.8% of women leaders representing Congolese women constituting 53% in a population estimated at 84,068,091 million (UIS, 2018). The analysis of the current context in the DRC exposes the existing gender imbalances in all the domains of economic, social, cultural and political development (Peace Women, 2020). This is a testament to the fact that patriarchy still rears its ugly head in modern 21st Century communities, and DRC is not an exception.
The fact of the matter is that women are still being treated as patients who are prescribed the ‘right medicine,’ should not question the doctor and must assume that he/she’s diagnosis is right. Thus, I allude to the fact that men always want to feel to be in control, hence some laws are still being implemented without the informed consent, knowledge and input of women in the DRC due to their marginalised presence in government. According to Martin Luther King Jr (1963) “All segregation statutes are unjust because they give the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority…hence segregation is not only politically, socially and economically unsound but it is morally wrong and sinful.” Law can be an instrument either to oppress or empower people. Even though the DRC is a signatory to international statutes on gender equality, women remain the most vulnerable and segregated in societal, governance and political processes. Up to the present day, women in the DRC have not fully accessed and enjoyed their rights to realise their opportunities as they should because most of the time the law is not on their side, which is developed and imposed by a male-dominated government. Thus, the crux of my argument is that the formulation and enactment of gender insensitive laws is rooted in a patriarchal mindset which does not want to see the liberation and advancement of women in political and governance issues in the DRC.
However, the removal of patriarchy from society is more of a process than an event in the DRC and all stakeholders need to go beyond constitutional provisions. Constitutional provisions and accession to international statutes are not enough to redress the plight of women. The glass-ceiling appears as if it is not there but in actual fact it is there. The situation manifests itself through invisibility of women as politicians in general which constitutes a negation of either their rights to equal participation or the motivation to challenge and change unequal men-women relations in society. In essence, this process of political exclusion starts long before unequal representation at national levels. In relation to ‘gendered differences’, as in male and female, a related explanation for the gap between men and women in the public sphere lies in the culturally prescribed allocation on of roles and stereotyping. I prescribe to the notion that women have less work experience and encounter more work interferences than men during the course of their careers in the DRC.
Since the DRC is also an African country, culture puts so much emphasis on gendered roles and the confinement of women at home focusing on child rearing, cooking and other house chores. I opine that given a scenario whereby female studies in the same class with her male counterpart, the probability that the woman will not pursue her career soon after they both complete their studies is very high. This can be an aid in explaining why many men establish political parties and become notable/prominent politicians, as compared to women some few years after completion of their studies in the DRC. In the same vein, Bianchi (2000) argues that domestic and child rearing expectations impose a burden on women…because they spend most of their time doing housework and childcare more than men do because this is what ‘culture’ prescribes due to stereotyping.
After conducting a research, Catalyst (2003) cites stereotyping and pre-conceptions of women’s roles and abilities as a major contributor to the leadership gap between men and women. In the leadership fraternity, it has therefore emerged that gender stereotypes are resistant to change and gender equality. Lack of exposure, experience and cultural expectations facilitates a dilemma in which women are torn between cross-pressures. As political leaders, women are expected to be tough and masculine, but as females they should not be ‘too manly’. Thus, Kanter (1977) argues that women who make-up a very small minority of a male-dominated group are seen as tokens representing all women…their highly visible performance is heavily scrutinised and they are perceived through gender-stereotyped lenses. This adds to the reasons why in the DRC, it is almost impossible for women to rise through the ranks either on merit or self-determination.
Heilman (2001:657-74) stipulates that “men are stereotyped with agentic characteristics such as confidence, assertiveness, independence, rationality and decisiveness. On the other hand, women are stereotyped with communal characteristics such as concern for others, warmth, sensitivity and nurturance” which, in my view, are generally perceived to be traits unfit for office. For those who are able to establish their own political parties or join one and contests for office in the DRC, most women are either not married or are divorced by choice or default so that they are exonerated from cross-pressures, cultural expectations and stereotyping. However, through the gender-stereotyping lenses, Rudman (1998) maintains that self-promoting women are seen as
less ‘socially attractive and less hireable.’ This is one of the reasons why women who want to pursue leadership positions opt-out simply because some have internalised these societal expectations or are aware of the social costs of ambition. Nevertheless, the DRC needs more female pace-setters who cannot be intimidated and are not afraid to break through the glass-ceiling.
Poverty adds to the range of additional barriers to the opportunities and rights for women in the DRC. 61.2% of Congolese women live underneath the poverty threshold against 51.3% of men (Peace Women, 2020). This is undoubtedly a deep-seated national and international glass ceiling. I am of the view that lack of adequate financial resources restricts women’s confidence and access to compete for political offices and maintaining them. Given the long-standing economic and political turmoil in the DRC, this has aggravated poverty which has subsequently led to the lack of access to education and low levels of literacy, especially for women.
These challenges have contributed to low levels of access to information and commonly undermines the knowledge and skills needed to enter public offices and secure professional political careers for women. In every part of the globe studying law, and politics is expensive. Tertiary education needs high grades to be enrolled as an undergraduate student, privileges which most women especially in rural areas do not have. According to data from UIS (2016) the literacy rate of the population of 15 years and older in the DRC is estimated at 77.04%. This rate is 88.5% for men and 66.5% for women. This is partly as a result of inadequate resources and the number keeps on expanding. Illiteracy is generally associated with poverty and discrimination.
Due to poverty, some household-heads especially in rural DRC still give preference to boys to go school over girls because the latter are ‘expendable’ and will soon get married and leave the household. Financial difficulties restrain girls’ access to education from primary to tertiary level, hence the acute reduction of female students and professionals at each stage. Poverty sets itself as the bottle-neck system which eliminates participants as they go up the professional ladder. The more stable you are, the higher are your chances to keep on pursuing your career. However, most women are frustrated at grassroots level where they fail to commence or complete their primary and secondary education which form the basis for professional careers in the DRC. Perhaps poverty is the biggest challenge derailing women from pursuing their careers in the DRC.
The challenges faced by women are both dynamic and complex in as much as gender studies are broad. Patriarchy (culture), law, gender roles (stereotyping), and poverty are the most visible obstacles in this field. However, this paper and issues raised are not exhaustive and conclusive in this matter. Researchers, intellectuals, policy-makers and NGOs need to continue accumulating data in trying to dispel the plight of girls and women in the DRC. Whilst the DRC is a new path of recovery and democracy, all stakeholders should collaborate so that women realise and enjoy their rights and opportunities in the field of governance and politics. Women should be at the centre of empowering themselves, whilst gender sensitive laws are institutionalised to facilitate this. Progressive governments should start formulating and implementing policies that benefit women because that benefits all of us. When women succeed, the DRC also succeeds.
Recommendations for the Way Forward
- An eclectic, pragmatic and analytical approach is required to comprehend complex processes that combine material, international, domestic, historical and contemporary factors in ways in which the DRC assumes an effective framework in which the plight of women is effectively dealt with so as to provide lasting solutions to their concerns an needs in participating in political and democratic spaces.
- In line with Liberal feminism, comprehensive laws and policies need to be implemented in the DRC that guarantee on-going women empowerment and gender equality processes, especially at grassroots level to deal with poverty and equal access to education. Formulation of policies is not a problem, but implementation is the mammoth task therefore a comprehensive approach is needed.
- More resources have to be conveyed to education, gender equality and women empowerment programs. Adequate resources ensure implementation of policies. One effective way is to introduce the quota system which promote the participation of women in politics and governance issues. This may include providing governance programs for capacity building with differentiated age requirements for men and women.
- The government, churches and various NGOs in the DRC should continue collaborating and embarking on extensive and intensive campaigns to inculcate gender equality so as to dispel patriarchy and gender stereotyping both in urban and rural areas because achieving gender equality is not an event but an ongoing process. Men still need to be socialised that women must be respected and that they are equal development partners in as much as they are Congolese citizens.
- Women can be capacitated to negotiate with their husbands, families and colleagues to review duty/role expectations so as to foster workload sharing with spouses, negotiate child-rearing and if possible, solicit domestic help. Thus, dealing with constraints on women’s time and mobility in their professions. To be in control of their situation, women need to adopt effective negotiation techniques as a way to aid them in procuring the resources they need at work and home so as to augment their advancement in educational, professional and leadership roles.
- Assigning more women to highly visible positions, developing effective and supportive mentoring relationships between men and women are key strategies for reducing the leadership gap. 8.8% of women in the DRC’s National Assembly leaves a lot to desire. More women in top echelons of power become confidence boosters for other aspiring women.
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Tendaishe Tlou is a Human Rights and Transitional Justice Advocacy Practitioner in Zimbabwe, a Researcher and a Writer in Human Rights Issues. He writes in his personal capacity and these are his own views.