WHEN Lulu Mitshabu left the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) she was, in her own words, “running”.
Lulu a mother of six daughters had dared to speak out about what was happening to her fellow women in the DRC.
“You are second-class citizens, I was arrested at the age of 12 just for wearing pants.
“Boys could go to school but not girls, girls just got married and the boys needed an education because they had to look after them and the children.”
Speaking at the 2009 International Women’s Breakfast at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre on March 5, Ms Mitshabu told the 1200 women gathered that she didn’t like that at all.
“But then I had the opportunity to go to school,” she said.
“I had a good father and the more I learned the more I wanted to know, but I had four brothers and when it came to which one would go to university it wasn’t me.
“I learned about discrimination (against) women; I met with them, I talked to them, I cried with these women but how could I speak out, we were living under dictatorship at the time.
“So I made a promise I would work to make these women’s stories known.”
It was that vow that had Lulu and her children fleeing from their country and relying on the systemic corruption of African officials.
“I left my country running, they wanted to kill me or erase me,” she said.
“I had to sell my children’s shoes to pay my way to seek refuge in Zambia, I couldn’t go back for anything.”
From there, about eight years ago, Ms Mitshabu was accepted for refugee status in Australia and then began the search for avenues to tell the stories of what was happening to fellow women in her birth country.
Ms Mitshabu said the Congo should be one of the richest countries in the world because of its mineral resources but those riches hadn’t brought wealth to the people.
Instead they had fuelled horrendous conflict compounded by corruption and poor governance.
Reports on the Congo War that began in 1998 say it involved eight African nations and numerous armed groups but despite the official cessation of conflict in 2003 the people of DRC, especially in the eastern provinces, continue to endure ongoing war and constant human rights abuse.
Ms Mitshabu said the conflict in DRC was and has been “a war on women”.
“Of the more than five million people killed since the war began in 1998 three-quarters of them are women and children.”
She said even more disturbing was the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.
In June, 2008, more than 2000 rapes were reported in one eastern province alone.
“Women cannot access water points and children cannot get safely to school,” Ms Mitshabu said.
“In DRC it is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a modern soldier in conflict.
“What is happening makes a mockery of civilian protection.”
Ms Mitshabu said affected women were commonly ostracised from their families and loved ones.
“Rape stigmatises the victims rather than the perpetrators and at times there could be up to 20 perpetrators,” she said.
“Rape is often accompanied by beatings, stabbings, cuttings and mutilations, and victims can be females from six months old to over 70 years old. It can have long-term physiological problems for the women and for family members who could not stop it from happening.”
Eventually Ms Mitshabu found an outlet to have her voice heard.
“I looked everywhere and that’s when I found Caritas,” she said.
Caritas Australia has supported initiatives of Caritas Congo since 2001 implementing such programs as providing care and support for victims of sexual violence in four medical institutions, care for pregnant rape victims and counselling for rape victims, to name a few.
“Caritas Australia is working for these women,” Ms Mitshabu said.
“Something has to be done to stop the infamy in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Last year Caritas produced a report that you can download from www.caritas.org.au (‘Forsaken Voices: Desecration and Plunder’) where you can find out what you can do to take action.
“There are recommendations and calls to action.
“We need you to ask Australia to increase the level of aid to DRC and contact the mining industry and ask them to sign the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.”
Australian-based Anvil Mining has several mines in DRC.
“Today is a challenge for you and I am appealing to you on behalf of the DRC and asking for your help.
“They need us to say this is enough.”