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Breaking the silence, breaking the laws
Gender IT

In an interview about ICT (information and communication technology) and its social effects on women, writer Mavic Cabrera-Balleza speaks with Sylvie Niombo and Francoise Mukuku, activists from Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) respectively.

MAVIC CABRERA-BALLEZA: Francoise and Sylvie, so nice to meet you. Please tell me and our readers something about yourselves.

FRANCOISE MUKUKU: I’m the national coordinator of a young feminist group called Si Jeunesse savait, and also involved in communication and research consultancy work on gender with various NGOs in the African Great Lakes sub-region.

SYLVIE NIOMBO: 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 [Democratic Republic of Congo"> for the Women’s Networking Support Programme of the Association for Progressive Communications.

MAVIC CABRERA-BALLEZA: Can you describe the ICT (information and communications technology) environment in the DRC?

FRANCOISE MUKUKU: 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 cafes where the connection is low and most of the computers are old. The internet service providers (ISPs) 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 are very high.

Access to ICTs is a development issue that social movement actors in the 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.

SYLVIE NIOMBO: I agree with Francoise. But I would like to add that 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.

MAVIC CABRERA-BALLEZA: How important are ICTs in the lives of Congolese, of Congolese women in particular?

SYLVIE NIOMBO: 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.

FRANCOISE MUKUKU: 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.

MAVIC CABRERA-BALLEZA: How do you describe the links between ICTs and violence against women (VAW), including sexual violence?

FRANCOISE MUKUKU: 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 organisations 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 radio 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 Christian 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.

SYLVIE NIOMBO: 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.

MAVIC CABRERA-BALLEZA: On the other side of the coin, can ICTs serve as a tool to reduce the incidence of violence?

SYLVIE NIOMBO: 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.

FRANCOISE MUKUKU: 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 programme that can provide useful information.

MAVIC CABRERA-BALLEZA: 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?

SYLVIE NIOMBO: 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 mobilisation 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 organisations in the DRC on Facebook, YouTube 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.

FRANCOISE MUKUKU: 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.

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

FRANCOISE MUKUKU: 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.

SYLVIE NIOMBO: 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.

MAVIC CABRERA-BALLEZA: Is there a law that penalises the violation of right to privacy?

FRANCOISE MUKUKU: 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 authorities 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?

SYLVIE NIOMBO: 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.

MAVIC CABRERA-BALLEZA: The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) 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?

FRANCOISE MUKUKU: 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 mobilise 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.

SYLVIE NIOMBO: 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.

MAVIC CABRERA-BALLEZA: Thanks very much for your time and your thoughts.

SYLVIE NIOMBO: Thank you for this opportunity.

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


* A longer version of this interview appeared at
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