Documenting the Women’s Peace Movement in Congo

Documenting the Women’s Peace Movement in Congo
In 2021 photographer Hugh Kinsella Cunningham and writer Camille Maubert teamed up with local correspondent Sifa Bahati to begin capturing the stories of women mediating on the frontlines.

Over the past two decades, a complex web of conflicts and grievances in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has resulted in the death of 5 million and displacement of nearly 7 million civilians.

What began as regional warfare following the 1994 Rwandan Genocide has gone global as a result of foreign reliance on the DRC’s extraordinary reserves of natural resources, including cobalt, uranium, and copper. But it’s the innocent civilians who are paying the price with their lives.

In 2019, photographer Hugh Kinsella Cunningham began documenting the conflicts in the Eastern DRC, spending time with those forced into displacement camps. “The testimonies and scenes of these stories are heart-rending,” he says, “especially when listening to them speak about what they have witnessed or experienced at the hands of rebel groups.”

In 2021, writer Camille Maubert arrived in DRC to research violence against women and the strategies they employ to protect themselves and manage trauma. “A lot of the work on Congo tends to focus on victimhood,” she says, “but I also wanted to explore what women were doing to stop that cycle of violence.”

That same year, Cunningham and Maubert teamed up with local correspondent Sifa Bahati, who helped them secure access to a loose network of activists and organisations on the ground to create “The Women’s Peace Movement in Congo.”

The on-going project documents the stories of women on the frontlines, risking their lives to mediate conflicts, track human rights violations, and advocate for victims. Their first-person accounts provide a vital account of underreported stories including the ethnic violence of the Ituri conflict; an Islamist insurgency waged by the ADF rebel group in Beni Territory; and the resurgence of the M23 conflict across North Kivu province.

They spoke with activists who arranged a temporary ceasefire in 2008 so that they could meet with Laurent Nkunda, the commander of the CNDP rebels. “But since then, times have changed, and many rebel groups are far too hostile to approach and negotiate with directly,” says Cunningham.

Rebel groups are not the only threat to peace. “Government forces also prey on civilians,” says Cunningham. “Many of the grassroots activists we have met now concentrate on protecting their communities from the worst excesses of their own army and police.”

“The Women’s Peace Movement in Congo” presents powerful accounts of the work they are doing to end the conflict while simultaneously working address poverty through political and economic empowerment and support victims of violence and sexual assault.

The team has interviewed members of the original movement going back to the early ‘90s, including Justine Masika and Louise Nyota, who continue to do the work while simultaneously engaging younger generations to join the call for peace.

“What motivates women to join the movement is the belief that if they don’t step in, no one will,” says Maubert. “Many explained that, as mothers, they want to stop their children from dying in the conflicts and they dream of a future where they can live, study and farm in peace.”

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