MUTARE, Zimbabwe — Distanced physically from the conflicts and challenges that plague their nations, United Methodist women from Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Mozambique recently explored their roles as women peace-builders.
The three-day conference March 18-20 at Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe, was co-sponsored by the U.S. United Methodist Women and the Institute of Peace, Leadership and Governance at Africa University to help equip the women to promote peace within and between their countries.
“During this conference, the women of Rwanda, Mozambique and Democratic Republic of Congo are addressing issues that impact women, children and youth in times of war,” said Grace Musuka, the United Methodist Women regional missionary who worked closely with the institute to organize the event.
“We know there is fighting in Rwanda. We know there is fighting in DRC. What is our role as women? ‘To make disciples of Jesus Christ to Transform the World’ is our theme for the general church. Peace building is a part of the process,” she said.
Forum to talk, resources to take home
Africa University students sat in on the discussions and peace-building skills workshops. “We have students who are coming from the same environments and would benefit from the workshops and the women’s discussions,” said Pamela Machakanja, director of the institute and event facilitator. Participants received resources to lead similar workshops with women in their home conferences.
The conference provided a forum for the women to talk about their experiences, the impact of war in their countries and the process of building peace.
Fighting between Democratic Republic of Congo military and rebel forces along the nation’s eastern border with Rwanda has displaced thousands of Congolese families living in the area and prompted charges from the United Nations that the Rwandan government is involved. While the women met, one of the key rebel leaders, Bosco Ntaganda, a Rwandan national and key rebel leader indicted for war crimes, surrendered at the U.S. embassy in Kigali, Rwanda.
Women from Mozambique described ways they are working to create a culture of peace in their country after years of war.
“Since the signing of the peace agreement in 1992, we can live in peace,” said Rute Uthui of United Methodist Women of Mozambique through an interpreter. “In the church, since last year, we always talk about peace and the maintaining of peace on the radio and in the news. Our women’s group meets every Thursday, and we never walk out without talking about peace and what we can do to maintain it. We are facing now criminality. When those people are caught, some want to beat them, but we say, talk to them — punish them according to what they’ve done — but not the violence, talk to them about peace.”
Dangers of political speech
The two women from Mozambique described the dangers violent political speech poses to peace.
“There is some political speech that threatens our peace,” said Ilda Guambe, also of Mozambique and an Africa University graduate. “There are two strong parties in our country. A person in one of the parties who isn’t getting along well with the government said, ‘I’m going to wake up one day and burn the country.’ Even though these elements threaten peace, we are still living in peace.”
Uthui added that “Most of the people in Mozambique know we still have to fight against ignorance to have peace in our country. The church has the power to influence the people to walk the right way. Peace has to be with us wherever we are — in our church, families and countries.”
Women from Rwanda described the path to the peace their nation now has 18 years after the 1994 genocide of members of the Tutsi ethnic group, led by extremist members of the Hutu ethnic group.
“It is unthinkable to overlook the promotion of justice in a society that has experienced genocide,” said Grace Rugomba, who presented a joint report of the four delegates from Rwanda to the gathering. “This is a crime that can never be punished nor forgiven. The paradox is in the need to promote justice. Rwanda adopted a justice system managed by citizens in different places … the Gacaca process.”
With more than 100,000 prisoners detained and awaiting some kind of judicial process, the revival of this traditional justice system enabled local communities to oversee processes that ended up rendering lower sentences for person who confessed and sought reconciliation with the families and community harmed.
“The Gacaca process has brought a new culture of justice,” Rugomba said.
Rugomba said the process also called for an examination of the underlying causes of the ethnic strife. Correcting the bad governance and discrimination against Tutsis that preceded the genocide was a part of their way forward, she said. Today, among other things, all Rwandans are treated equally, including having health insurance and access to public education.
“Education for all is one of the pillars of peace,” she said, explaining that Tutsi children were once denied public education. “Every person has a right to education and learning. Primary education is compulsory and free. … Today there is not Tutsi; there is not Hutu; there is only Rwandan. Everyone gets the same thing.”
DRC women reaching to displaced persons camps
The five women from Democratic Republic of Congo reported that their groups reach out with food and supplies to those at camps for displaced persons who have fled the latest violence in the east. But the women have been dealing with war for a long time and want peace.
“If you can image a situation that has been prevailing for 20 years, and if you can also imagine the consequences of the 20 years of war, it’s just rotten,” said the Rev. Esther Kachiko Furaha, a DRC pastor. “One of the consequences is there are many Congolese refugees around Africa, in Europe and the United States. There are other people who are displaced within the national boundaries. The economy is shaken because of the situation of conflict.”
The women said women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, particularly displaced women or those living in areas hit by the conflict, face sexual violence and insecurity as they walk long distances to get water for the families. Women who are attacked may also be marginalized by their own community should unwanted pregnancies occur.
Furaha said the church has not been quiet. In addition to the women’s ongoing outreach to displaced families, last fall DRC bishops met with U.S. Congressional representatives and called for peace at United Methodist Women’s Church Center for the United Nations. The United Methodist Committee on Relief also provided water sources near camps for displaced persons camps.
The women developed peace-building plans to implement with women in their conferences before leaving the event.
Africa University Vice Chancellor Fanuel Tagwira said the school was the appropriate venue for the women’s peace conference.
“We are a pan-African institution centered in The United Methodist Church that opened its doors in 1992 to educate young people from across the African continent to create new leadership for the continent,” he said. “We were set up to educate African people to answer the challenges the African continent is facing. It is for things like this that the founding fathers set this school up.”
Yvette Moore is editor of response, the magazine of United Methodist Women. She traveled to Africa University for the women’s peace building conference.