Democratic Republic of the Congo: Two sides of the same ICT coin - breaking the silence /breaking the laws

28 July 2010 writer Mavic Cabrera-Balleza speaks with Sylvie Niombo and Francoise Mukuku, ICT activists from Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) respectively. They discuss various facets of the information and communication technologies and the context to which they apply in the DRC . The interviewees elaborate on how ICTs can be used to reduce incidence of violence against women and how it is also widely used in ways that aggravate the violence and violate privacy laws. They also explain why access to ICTs is critical to the DRC and how it can be used to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

Mavic Cabrera-Balleza (MCB):Francoise and Sylvie, so nice to meet you. Please tell me and our readers something about yourselves.

Francoise Mukuku (FM): I’m the national coordinator of a young feminist group called Si Jeunesse savait 1, which I started with friends in 2001. I’m based in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I worked as a print and broadcast journalist for eight years and spent five years at Radio Okapi, the first independent media in DRC which is a partnership between the UN peacekeeping mission and Hirondelle, a Swiss NGO. After that, I thought that my time being simply an observer and reporter of the situation was odd.

I wanted to be part of the action and have a say on what was going on. I also wanted to use both my activist and journalist backgrounds to collect stories and share information with those who can do more to address the problems we have in our country. Besides, there were also too many people speaking on behalf of Congolese women and coming in with assumptions, taking and presenting only the aspect of the situation that they wanted to focus on. I was sure that as a Congolese woman, I would have access to more information and that my perspective would reflect the realities, the needs and aspirations of other Congolese women.

Now I’m involved in communication and research consultancy work on sexual and reproductive health; and rights and gender issues in general with various NGO in the African Great Lakes sub-region.

I’m passionate about technology. As much as I can, I try to put together all my areas of work, expertise and personal interests together. This is my idea of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for development. I’m also involved in the issue of violence and ICT because I am a survivor of violence myself. I know what access to the technologies can do for people…they can be a very powerful tool that can provide you with relevant information and support your healing process.

Sylvie Niombo (SN): I am currently working as regional coordinator for the MDG3: Take Back the Tech! to end violence against women project in Congo - Brazzaville and the DRC for the Women’s Networking Support Programme of the Association for Progressive Communications. I have been involved in issues related to ICTs and violence against women and girls for over five years.

I am also the co-founder of AZUR Development, a women’s organization in Congo Brazzaville. At AZUR, I have initiated several capacity-building initiatives on leadership, women’s rights and violence against women for young women and NGO leaders. I am mobilizing young women to deepen their feminist analysis, develop organizational skills, and acquire communications tools to advance women’s rights initiatives.

I worked on pioneering actions for indigenous women and girls, including a project on access to antiretroviral therapy. My commitment in the fight against AIDS led to the creation of the Réseau SIDA Afrique Network, which is now one of the main Francophone online and offline platforms for the fight against HIV/AIDS and malaria in Africa. I have also worked on UN projects in Congo- Brazzaville, the International Red Cross Committee and as a consultant for Panos West Africa (CIPACO project), the Social Sciences Research Council and others.

MCB: As our topic is the intersection of information and communication technologies (ICTs), violence against women ( VAW) and privacy, can you describe the ICT environment in the DRC?

FM: Internet penetration is very low. We can’t afford to have personal PCs in our homes nor have a mobile connection even if we have laptops. Most of the time, people in big cities rely on cyber-cafés where the connection is low and most of the computers are old. The internet service providers (ISP) –to population ratio is very low and the ISPs are concentrated in Kinshasa. The ISPs here all use satellite and expensive technology and the custom tariffs on electronics is very high.

Access to ICTs is a development issue that social movement actors in DRC are promoting. Internet connectivity might improve now because mobile telephone companies are providing General Packet Radio Service (GPRS). But then, you need an expensive smart phone to access this service and you need to know how to use it. Language is another issue as most of this service is not in local language. And people in the villages would still not be able to access internet unless they come to town

SN: I agree with Francoise. The internet is not yet accessible to all in the DRC, not only because of the high cost of internet surfing in internet cafes and having internet connection in offices or homes, but also the cost of equipment. However, the mobile phone is very popular and widely used by people from all walks of life including those who are not literate and those who live in rural areas. Media like radio are also popular in the DRC, and there are many community radio stations that broadcast in local languages. Many people also watch television.

MCB: How important are ICTs in the lives of Congolese? Of Congolese women in particular?

SN: The mobile phone is used to maintain contact with family of course, but also in business. Entrepreneurs and traders use it to stay in touch with their clients. With the arrival of the internet and the opening of internet cafes, students and women in small and medium enterprise use the internet for education; for office work; for their business; and also to find information about opportunities abroad.The audiovisual media are also important for businesses because of the publicity and the big audience outreach. However, they are not very accessible because of the high cost of advertising. Creative media like theatre and short plays or sketches on the daily facts of life are also very popular even in the other Congo, in Brazzaville. Issues affecting women and the rest of the population are depicted in these sketches.

FM: As Sylvie said, mobile phones are very important for Congolese people. They have replaced landline phones. People have separate mobile phones for their offices and their homes. Sometimes when you call an “office”, you get someone on the bus complete with all the background noise. More and more advertisers are using them to reach potential customers which also results in a rise in spam. …We have yet to use mobile phones for critical services like calling the police or emergency medical services. There is no special number for such use.

MCB: Is there a unique way in which Congolese people use or engage with ICTs? For example, in my country, the Philippines, people are heavy texters. The Philippines is regarded as the texting capital of the world.

FM: Buzzing people with their mobiles phones is quite unique to DRC. Because most people are poor and can’t afford to buy credit, they just buzz you. If you are really interested to know what they want to say, you call them back. They can buzz you every 10 minutes for two days until you call them. Congolese also like promotional packages such as charging your telephone with a total of 1 dollar credit and make unlimited calls the whole day. So we have many of these madness days where everybody is calling everybody and they clog the bandwidth or crash something at the telecom company.

SN: In the DRC, SMS is widely used, especially by girls and boys. It is also common to hear people calling journalists during radio and television shows.

MCB: How do you describe the links between ICTs and violence against women (VAW) including sexual violence?

FM: There is a very concrete link between ICTs and VAW. Many harassments happen through the use of telephones. Men give a phone to their wives to monitor their wives' activities; men bribe telecom service employees to gain access to their wives or girlfriends’ call list. Other forms of violations of the right to privacy take place, such as the government tapping the lines of civil society organizations or political activists; or cutting activists' connections, as they did after the elections. They did this to prevent people from monitoring the results and sharing election-related information with each other.

More and more photo montages of famous people are being circulated, with the victims in compromising situations. It is difficult to explain to the public that those are not real pictures. I would add to this long list the fact that we have more than 300 radios and TV stations. Most of them are not run by professionals and they are just broadcasting hate speech, stigma and discrimination against women who don’t conform with what they call “African or Christians values.”

Some religious radio stations send out messages that if women are raped, it is because they provoked it. They also discourage women from speaking out. They tell women to remain silent because god is fighting for them. I have also come across some hate speech broadcasts, but fortunately they are not too many. These kind of media practitioners compensate for the lack of relevant content by just giving the microphone to any caller who can say anything s/he wants to say without worrying whether they are violating other people’s dignity and right to privacy.

SN: To add to what Francoise said, ICTs can exacerbate VAW since they are used to send obscene messages to women and girls. To make matters worse, if men have access to emails and phones of their wives or girlfriends, which is often the case, and find they have been communicating with other men, this creates suspicion and can lead to physical violence. It is also quite common for men to change their wives or girlfriends’ SIM cards every now and then to ensure that they don’t have other lovers. It is also common that pictures of naked girls are circulated via bluetooth in mobile phones among young male students. Access to porn movies and pictures in internet cafes has also resulted into young people imitating what they see, which in turn can result in incest.

Another dimension of the link between ICTs and VAW is due to mobile phones becoming status symbols. Mobile phones have become objects of desire and status symbols and it is no longer rare to hear about young women agreeing to provide sexual services in exchange for a cell phone. There are also reported cases of young women who use the internet to find partners in Western countries and are sometimes lured into prostitution.

As Francoise also pointed out, the audiovisual media can perpetuate stereotypes that normalize violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence.

MCB: On the other side of the coin, can ICTs serve as a tool to reduce the incidence of violence?

SN: In order for ICTs to reduce the incidence of violence, they should be used to inform and educate the population. There is also a need to increase the production of content so that ICT tools are useful for girls and boys.

FM: Yes, ICTs can also be used to reduce VAW. However in most instances when the most cruel, most brutal forms of violence happen, there is no network or any radio program that can provide useful information.

(In the DRC, it is clear that many people and organisations use ICTs, especially cell phones, computers and the internet in their activities to end  violence against women and girls. Yet in this context, ICTs are seen more as supporting tools - for creating documents, Powerpoint presentations, using cell phones for communication, researching information on the internet, making contacts on the internet, etc. Online petitions , for example, press releases and calls to action to support the causes are circulated online.
There’s a campaign that calls on users of cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices to campaign companies to guarantee that the income from their purchases does not contribute to sexual violence in the DRC)2

MCB: Speaking on the epidemic of sexual violence in DRC, Yakin Erturk, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women once said that access to ICTs is critical for Congolese women as it could be the only thing that could break their isolation from the rest of the world. What do you think of this statement?

FM: I think the rapporteur is right but as I said before, there is no network that supports survivors of sexual violence even when the most brutal and cruel form of violence is committed. [In parts of] the country where domestic violence is rampant, we need some green or emergency numbers to allow calls to the police or hospital or anyone who can help. We need to have some kind of Ushaidi3 website and map out the places where violence is on the rise to encourage people to lobby their parliamentarians and other elected officials to address the situation. Our decision-makers don’t understand that we have much to win in investing in ICT. It is pitiful.

SN: ICTs can not only serve to break the silence, but go beyond, to educate people about what violence against women and girls means in all its forms. For the DRC, sexual violence has been much publicized, but not the other forms especially in the western media. Although ICTs have helped to generate solidarity and commitment from international organizations, the local or national organizations in the DRC working with women and grassroots groups remain invisible. ICTs can help document this, and encourage local women and girls to tell their untold stories. With ICTs, they could share local initiatives that contribute to reducing violence against women and girls.

MCB: The common perception of the international community about the DRC is that the country is in a very bleak situation. It’s been referred to as the “rape capital of the world”, “the worst place on earth to be a woman” and many other depressing descriptions. How do you feel about this? How can ICTs be used to put these descriptions into a more accurate and realistic perspective?

SN: It is true that many atrocities have been committed against women and girls in the DRC, and that makes us sad, but we are awake to the fight to end these atrocities. This explains the strong mobilization of women's and human rights organizations to end impunity against perpetrators of sexual violence in this country. Building the capacity of women and girls, civil society and the media in the use of ICTs is critical so we can tell the stories from the Congolese perspective and also raise the voices of courageous girls and women who fight for women's rights in the DRC. There are a number of campaigns initiated by international organizations in the DRC on Facebook, You Tube and on several blogs, but very few Congolese activists use ICT tools to speak, to share stories and ideas online. Congolese activists should take advantage of these tools.

FM: We have that bad, long legacy of dictatorship in our country so people are really afraid to hold their leaders accountable for what is being done to them. But we women, especially young women, are willing to break the silence. We didn’t really live during those dark days when people were disappearing for not saying the right things in public, but we still see how risky it is to go against the norms, because we can become scapegoats. So we do it online, everyday, more and more we are building our political consciousness. We are taking detours like using creative stuff to understand what it requires to end poverty, to be part of the leadership and to build our political consciousness. We need more projects on how to exercise our communication rights to be able to change the situation.

I’m convinced that women are the only ones who can put an end to the violence because they live it in their flesh and in their souls. But you know what, when you present an ICT project to funders they ask: “ how will you implement this in a country where there is no electricity, where there is a high level of illiteracy among women, where there are many people fighting to put food on their table?” ICT projects are not part of their priorities. Our biggest challenge is to explain to them that ICT can be a solution to the problems they want to solve. We are still struggling to explain the importance of ICTs.

MCB: What about privacy? Is this seen as an issue by Congolese women? How do you relate it to ICTs?

FM: Privacy is a real problem, especially in a patriarchal society like ours, where the woman belongs to the husband, the girl to the father and the sister to the brother. You can’t have privacy; a married woman can’t even go and answer her phone in a place where she is alone. She will be accused of cheating on her husband. Boyfriends want to have the password to their girlfriends’ email when they are not sharing one email account. Most of the time it is the boy who has the password and he can change it or use the mailbox the way he wants.

Those of us who use aliases because we want to keep our privacy or sometimes because of security reasons or both, are also put at risk when people reveal who we are or when they say what they know about us in public spaces. They think what they're doing is funny. They don’t care about what the law says or how it can hurt you or your family.

SN: Privacy is often violated with the use of ICT tools, such as when photos of nude young girls are circulated through cell phones or internet. There is often little awareness on the issues of violation of privacy and personal data protection.

MCB: Is there a law that penalizes the violation of right to privacy?

FM: Yes, there is such a law, for all sorts of privacy violation but there is also another for délit de presse (defamation), when it is done through the media. You can sue the journalist or the newspaper and I know that some people have used these - especially politicians, but not common people. But my greatest concern is about suing someone who has violated your privacy from abroad. Our laws don’t have provisions for that. I once faced a similar problem. The authorities here in Congo asked me to call our embassy and also to contact the authorites in the country where I thought the perpetrator was from. It did not get me anywhere. I was not able to seek justice. Now imagine, if a techie like me can’t find redress, what about other women who don’t even have access to the internet?

SN: As regards the law on privacy, there is no specific legislation protecting privacy in the DRC. However, there are a few different legal texts provisions protecting privacy (such as residence, private correspondence, married life etc.). There is the Congolese Penal Code dated January 30, 1940, but there are many concepts that still need to be integrated into the penal code. The law condemns attacks on individual freedom; protects the inviolability of the home; and condemns attacks on the sanctity of letters (arts.69 to 79). While electronic correspondence may be part of private correspondence, this is not explicit.

MCB: The Millennium Development Goals identify ICTs as a critical instrument in achieving Education for All. What do you think of this? Do you see any other relationship between ICTs and the MDGs?

FM: ICTs are a transversal tool to meet all the MDGs - especially in countries like ours that are many years behind meeting all the development goals. We need ICTs to boost all the sectors in society. We need technologies to fill all sorts of gaps including lack of professors and educational infrastructures; lack of access to good university education; lack of access to all sorts of knowledge; and lack of access to information about markets for agricultural products.

We need ICTs to mobilize constituencies when the election comes or when there is a special need to advocate or lobby the policy makers and decision-makers in line with good governance. We need e-medicine and many medical applications that can save lives. In a country as big as western Europe but with no infrastructure, ICTs can save lives. … I can go on and on about letting people understand how critical ICT access is for the DRC.

SN: ICTs can also help in development sectors such as agriculture, with farmers' training, sharing of knowledge on agricultural technologies and networking among farmers and buyers. This would have a positive impact on rural women. Access to social services and healthcare services remains a challenge for most African countries, ICTs could be used for tele-medicine to alleviate some problems; to provide health care to populations and help reduce maternal morbidity and mortality.

MCB: Who promotes the issue of ICT access in the DRC and how is this done?

FM: There are many people promoting ICT access but it is not done in a systematic way. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa ( UNECA) came up with a National Information and Communication Infrastructure (NICI) plan to standardize what we are doing in-country with what was agreed internationally during the World Summit on the Information Society. The World Bank presented a sectoral policy on telecom. Some funders have started discussions on infrastructure saying that we don’t need a policy before infrastructure. Some civil society organizations are also advocating for a national ICT plan before going into sectoral planning. Where have all these led us?

Nothing has been concretely accomplished after more than four years! I like very much the work of the civil society but we need political will to make things happen. We have so many people, many funders willing to help because they know that developing ICTs in DRC can benefit the whole region. However, when they find out that there is nothing concretely done in the country, they just give up or postpone everything.

SN: If the sectoral strategy of development of ICT developed by the Government is implemented, it will reduce the digital divide in the country. There should also be more action and involvement of women's organizations and civil society in the process of development of ICTs in the DRC.

MCB: Thanks very much for your time and your thoughts.

SN: Thank you for this opportunity.

FM: You are welcome. It was great talking to both of you.

Mavic Cabrera-Balleza is the international coordinator of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders. She produces local language radio productions in conflict-affected countries like Liberia and Uganda to amplify women’s voices in policy discussions and decision-making on women, peace and security issues and ensure women’s participation in peacebuilding and conflict resolution.
Mavic also serves as the president of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters – Women’s International Network. She is also a member of the Executive Committee of the UN NGO Committee on the Status Women – New York. Additionally, she is a member of Isis International and the New York representative of the Asia Pacific Women's Watch.
Since 2006, Mavic has been a member of the pool of writers.

1st photo: Francoise explaining to a friend how the bluetooth works
2nd photo: Sylvie Niombo, seventh from left at a Feminist Tech Exchange event.

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1 A well-known French saying that literally means “if youth knew” and connotes that young people generally behave foolishly because they lack knowledge and experience. Francoise’s organization challenges this and asserts that young people do not need to undergo pain and frustrations to understand what life is about and that they can act responsibly.

2 Source: Niombo, S. Ending Violence against Women and Girls in the DRC through the Use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). June 2009.

3 Ushahidi (Swahili for "testimony" or "witness") is a website created in the aftermath of Kenya's disputed 2007 presidential election that collected eyewitness reports of violence sent in by emaili and text-message and placed them on a Google map. Source: