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April 25, 2004

Women and Children in the Congo

Living Room Dialogue with Mary Rose Beya-Mukeni

To Mary Rose Beya-Mukeni, a Congolese psychologist, many of the traditions of her country are precious and should be honored by all who would help her people. But there is one tradition that she believes should be challenged: Male domination.

In a Living Room Dialogue presentation on Women in the Congo in April, she outlined some of the struggles of women in her country. Traditionally, they have not been permitted to talk in groups, not encouraged to obtain higher education, and are legally regarded as children. In some places women can still be killed for adultery while men are expected to have sexual relations with many women.

Women don't feel entitled to say no to sex or demand the man use a condom. At the same time men hold women responsible for the spread of HIV/AIDS. There are now more deaths from AIDS than from malaria. Yet, this situation is beginning to change, she said, and the key to improving women's lives and the lives of children is education. In terms of health, many women can¹t read a medical prescription, or understand family planning. Given contraceptive pills, they ask their men to take them, believing that they don't need them and that it is up to men to decide how many children to have.

Women don't have the skills to obtain better-paying jobs and yet, with so many men being killed by war, must provide income for their families alone. The sex trade is often the only work they can find. Young women need opportunities for income outside of becoming sex objects. Older men solicit sex from schoolgirls because they regard having sex with youth as a kind of therapy. As a result, many girls are becoming pregnant very young and the rate they are becoming infected with HIV is high and rising.

Men resist having women become educated because they fear women will "take over," and well-educated women sometimes have a hard time socially. For example, many accept being a third or fifth wife in a polygamous marriage because it seems the only kind of marriage they can make.

Ms. Beya-Mukeni's description of the situation of women in her country gave rise to a discussion in the group about the workings of patriarchy in the U.S. The mother of a 17-year-old daughter expressed great concern about the ways youngsters are sexualized at a very early age here and about the images of women as sex objects conveyed by media outlets like MTV and by advertising. She proposed that people should go into schools and educate boys about the difference between pornography and a loving sexual relationship.

Another woman said she felt men generally needed opportunities to learn about emotional intelligence. A third portrayed her son as a gentle and caring stay-at-home dad whose wife became bitter and resentful at the stresses of trying to be a breadwinner and mother at the same time. She argued that the organization of paid employment must become more flexible to allow parents to share the responsibilities of jobs and childcare more equitably.

After her mother spoke, Therese Beya-Mukeni, 13, told the group a little about her experience growing up in Kinshasa. As the child of a faculty member in a university town, she enjoyed great privilege compared to the destitute people who also lived in the community.

Her family felt a responsibility to help in this situation. Her mother, alone among faculty members, permitted some children to obtain water from their house, where it was piped in. Otherwise, they would have had to walk miles to get water. Children also had to take jobs washing dishes and clothes for less than $1 a day to help out their families.

She and her friends went into the poor community to teach the children there to read because they had no chance to go to school and spent a lot of time just standing around on the streets. She passed on her outgrown clothes to some children, but that was often difficult because others would feel left out, and then parents would sell the donated clothes anyway.

It was very enlivening to have the perspective of a 13-year-old in the discussion. Network for Peace through Dialogue plans to find ways to make future Living Room Dialogues intergenerational.


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