After participating in an American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) training for paralegals on gender-based violence in April 2016, Zenon Bakanja1, a community leader now works to combat violence against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). By advocating for the rights of married women to paternal inheritance, Bakanja uses his position in the Babulinzi community of the Mwenga territory to raise awareness of these issues.
The right to paternal inheritance has been historically limited to male children in DRC under the expectation that women will inherit from their husbands. If women are unmarried or underage they are otherwise assumed to be dependent on their male relatives. This limitation puts women at a disadvantage and contributes to their disenfranchisement, all of which renders women more vulnerable to sexual and gender based or structural violence. In other words, fighting sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) also requires undoing norms that, even if not directly related to SGBV, create social and political environments that contribute to this violence.
“After the trainings, I changed,” Bakanja said. “Despite being responsible for conserving our traditional customs, I began to raise awareness in my community and even confront those families who continued to disinherit married women. Now, of the 375 total inheritance cases registered since 2016, 10 accounts belong to married women who received paternal inheritance.” 2
Bakanja operates in one of eight health zones in which ABA ROLI works to train local residents as paralegals on family law issues like inheritance, child support, property rights, as well as SGBV. The Ushindi project — Swahili for “we overcome” — is an effort between ABA ROLI, HEAL Africa Panzi Hospital, IMA World Health, Search For Common Ground and the Ministry of Health in North and South Kivu, to counter the alarming rise of sexual violence in DRC by addressing instances of SGBV from within local communities.
The Ushindi project provides paralegals with the tools they need to resolve conflicts peacefully, particularly those within and amongst families affected by SGBV.
Community-based initiatives such as this one can be the most effective way of addressing issues of SGBV in rural areas, since it can be difficult and expensive for local residents to have access to justice systems located in major cities.
In the six years since the Ushindi project was first implemented, the combined efforts of community leaders and paralegals like Bakanja have created brighter futures for women in DRC by engaging communities in conversation about norms and practices that negatively affect women and that contribute directly and indirectly to violence against women. Their work has inspired behavioral changes in whole communities and prompted the revision of certain customs and practices that lead to violence against women and girls.
By training members of more communities as paralegals, ABA ROLI can continue to strengthen women’s access to justice and work to prevent SGBV in DRC.
To learn more about our work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, please contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Last name has been changed to protect the identity of the subject.
2 The 10 cases belong to married women, not accounting for cases filed by unmarried or underage women and men included in the 375 total.