In helping to launch the United Nations campaign called HeForShe, actress Emma Watson states:
“Sadly I can say that there is no one country in the world where all women can expect to receive [the same rights as men]. No country in the world can yet say they have achieved gender equality.”
Christians are the followers of the One who saw dignity and God’s image in the Samaritan woman, and treated her with a regard that defied culture and convention.
Has this example inspired the global Church to stand up bravely for the rights of women and girls?
Camille and Esther Ntoto, founders of Un Jour Nouveau, share their observations from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where Christianity is the majority religion. The following is the first of a 2-part interview.
First Fruit: The world continues to be an unfair place for women and girls. What does that look like in your home country of DRC?
Camille: When you talk about inequality, I don’t think there’s a better place than the Congo to illustrate and exemplify it. Congo has been labeled the world capital of sexual violence. 1 in 3 women have been raped. Some analysts have called Eastern Congo the worst place to be a woman. It’s very sad to see how a culture of violence and destruction has been directed towards hurting woman and children who are the most vulnerable in a context of war and conflict.
Esther: I think we also need to come to understand what is gender equality. I think we need to agree it’s first a right – a human right for men and women, boys and girls. And it’s the right for all of them to enjoy the same resources, to enjoy the same opportunities, and also the same protection. And that’s what has been missing in Congo.
Camille: For a typical 12-year-old girl growing up in the Congo, her parents don’t have the means to send her to school, so she stays at home. What are the options she has for the future? When she becomes 13 or 14 years old, her parents will give her out to marriage. 15 years old, 16 years old, she has her first child. And if the husband happens to be abusive or doesn’t want to stay with her, her option is to sell her body.
She will later raise her children in those conditions, thus perpetuating a cycle like this. And so one of the reasons it’s important to do something different, to bring help and assistance is so that by the age of 11 or 12 years, the story can be completely different by understanding the importance of sending both the boys and girls to school. Then she can escape that kind of fatal future of being given to marriage at a young age . She escapes the fatal future of having to sell her body to feed her children because she has no other resources or skills or capacity to survive.
I will tell the story of Charmante. Her mother was an activist, a very dynamic woman. We realized that she didn’t have a husband, and later on we discovered that she had a disease that was at the terminal stage. What can 15-year-old Charmante – who also has to care for her brothers and sisters – do? And what are the options for her? Her mother didn’t leave any inheritance. We put Charmante in our program so at least she can go to school. And in this program she realizes that in her she has a potential.
Something she can develop that will be beneficial to the community and the society and in the long run, also something that can help her sustain herself. So instead of Charmante having to go and sell her body – because in many cases that’s the only option that’s left – she has an opportunity to go to school. We helped with some of the basic needs for food, shelter, and water. And Charmante’s future is not going to be one of those statistics anymore. So this is how it looks like when we understand as us who have means or the Body of Christ who assist those who are in difficulty.
First Fruit: Why do you think gender inequality continues to exist?
Esther: I think gender inequality exists in all contexts. Culture is one reason. Many of our tribes consider the woman as an object – created for the pleasure of men. In 2005 in Goma we received 25 new cases of sexual violence to the hospital, serious cases needing repair. They were all coming from the same village. I will never forget. A group of 10 rebels had ransacked the village of nearly a thousand people, paralyzed a whole population, killed a few people, and raped all the women. And were gone.
What one woman said shocked me the most. She said,
if they could just rape us “normally” it would be okay, but why do they have to torture us?
We understand that they need women and we are there, but why do they torture us? And that reaction made me understand that we have a serious problem. Because in our mindset as women we are raised to understand that your mission in life is to give pleasure to a man that will hopefully be your husband, give him children, and take care of your family. Sad to say, even urban women in the Congo think this way.
I think also one of the problems is the way we raise our children. Where there is no running water, you have to fetch water, and for some people it’s long walks of 1, 2, sometimes 3 hours. You often wash with the dirty water left from the dishes, the clothing, etc. Most of the homes have no walls or fences. A girl and a boy as they grow up, they have to bathe in front of everybody. You can go from one street to another, a total stranger can stop and watch a girl even up to 6, 7 years old, naked and on display, and it’s totally normal. As they grow they hide a little bit, but that’s it.
So what grows in the mind of a little girl that it’s okay for a stranger to see me naked? Although she feels ashamed, when she’s totally grown up and the men come once to take her, it’s a predisposition already in their psyche. That’s not helping at all with our problem of gender-based violence. Because many take advantage of that. They use tricks on those little girls who never receive an education, because of their life they have to learn how to keep a house, how to do all the work. And that’s it. Their only way out of this is to find a man who will marry you. If he doesn’t, because we still accept polygamy, what is important is that you belong to a man and that you can bear children. And then you have accomplished your mission as a woman on earth.
Camille: It’s cultural. Growing up my father use to tell us that there’s a place for a man to be and it’s definitely not in the kitchen. He changed his mind when we went to Europe and he would allow us to do some things. But there was a way that we are groomed to certain acceptable social roles. And we are raised to realize that there are things that girls have to do that boys don’t have to do. It’s economic. In families where parents have limited amount of resources, the choice will go preferably to boys. It’s political. The power structures are made by men. And of course it’s social. In our context sexual violence or rape was used as a weapon of war.
First Fruit: Why should the church care about gender inequality?
Camille: I think the church should care about gender inequality just like the church should care about every other social issue. The bible calls us to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Jesus commissioned us to go into all the world and make the nations his disciples. It was an imperative, not optional, and in doing that we are changing mindsets so that people are coming from darkness to light. In our context people spend nights fasting, praying, praising and worshiping – services of 3, 4, 5 hours. And it’s easy to think that’s what it means to be spiritual. In Isaiah 58 the fast that pleases God is a totally different story. It is to care for your neighbor or somebody who is in need. And to demonstrate love in a concrete fashion.
That’s what pleases God as opposed to a number of rituals. And I think my biblical foundation for that has to do with the first commandment. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. And we cannot be standing and looking at the destruction of society and just praising God and worshipping him within the walls of our churches. The church has been a very bad example at some point. Instead of being a solution, some churches somehow have misused certain biblical passages – like those that say woman cannot speak or teach – to emphasize what we think is socially or culturally acceptable.
Esther: The bible shows no partiality – there is no Jew or Greek, male or female (Romans 2:11). Jesus came to reconcile us all with the father through him. He didn’t come to reconcile and save the man alone or just the Jew. So it’s a big responsibility as the church that we have been left on earth to be like Jesus to reconcile this world.
In Eastern Congo, many girls come to speak to their pastors with the same problem when they are ready to graduate from high school. They are afraid to graduate because many of them will come back to the house and will be faced with a problem with their mothers.
Now that we’ve taken care of you, and we’ve given you the possibility to go to school, it’s your turn to bring money home. Find a job or a man.
And if a girl says no, but I want to pursue my study, they have to find the means themselves. Some are kicked out of their house. I can’t count the number of girls that we have heard personally who are faced with this problem. And these are the Christians. They say, now what do I do. Pray for me. God needs to intervene.
Camille: Meanwhile, the boys stay in the home as long as they want and go to school for it.
Click here for Part 2 on what the global Church’s response can be.
Note: The title of this post, “She’s My Sister”, is also the name of a program operated by the American Bible Society in the Great Lakes Africa region (and a recent First Fruit grantee).