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My Name Is Marie Jeanne: Sparking Change by Speaking Up

The involvement of women in decision-making processes is essential for a balanced and equitable society. However, men are in control of the decision-making in Marie Jeanne’s community. Women are not given the opportunity to share their ideas and concerns during community gatherings. Marie stood up against this and other injustices. #SheDares to speak up on behalf of all the women in her community. This is her story.   

Due to many years of conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, retrogressive traditional social orders have been deeply rooted in our society. This hinders the involvement of women and girls in the decision-making processes in our households and communities. 

In a small village in Bukavu, South Kivu, I am Marie Jeanne, a 47-year-old mother of six and a guardian to a boy left behind after the father was killed during the rebel group's invasion of Goma in 2013. 

I am a farmer, but the poor living conditions and recurrent armed conflicts in the Eastern DRC make it difficult to care for my children. The little proceeds I get from farming cater to 10 percent of my household needs. This is the case for many women-led households in my village. After losing men to the war, women are left to take care of orphans and households. 

With increasing tension and insecurity, it became harder for me to go to the farm, and my husband couldn't go to the mining site in search of opportunities. In 2014, I took a risk and went to a nearby village called Luhara to enroll in Women for Women International's Stronger Women, Stronger Nations Program. My motivation to join was sparked by women in Luhara whose lives had drastically improved after joining the program. I kept wondering how they managed to set up income-generating activities in a short time. Unfortunately, I missed the opportunity because, at that time, the program was only meant for women from the Luhara community. I went home disappointed, but I still hoped to get the opportunity. 

Luckily, in 2016, WfWI launched the program in my village, and I was among the first women to be registered. I joined a group of 25 women to form our class. Together, we commenced the 12-month training. We learned practical skills such as beauty, poultry keeping, and brickmaking. We learned how to trade and set up businesses. Along the way, we also learned about our rights as women, our right to own land and inherit property, and how to prevent violence and domestic abuse. 

The training gave us a safe space to share our experiences and speak up on issues affecting us in our communities and homes. After a few months of training, I became confident and could speak up in class and among my peers.

After graduating, I overcame fear, and my trainers tapped into that strength and enrolled me in the Change Agent program, a grassroots advocacy and leadership training for women who demonstrate motivation and leadership in their community. We identified changes we wanted to see and created action plans that outlined how we wanted to use our voices and experiences to influence our communities. 

During the Change Agent program, we were encouraged to get involved in public life, train, support each other, and demand our rights. The modules on how to carry out advocacy actions helped me dispel the fear and shatter the myths that have, for several decades, pushed Congolese women to remain silent when men speak. Today, I can speak out and express women's ideas without any hang-ups. I realized that women could not speak or share their concerns during public assemblies in my village. All decision-making processes are still concentrated in the hands of men alone. I took a stand and decided to go against the norm. I am representing and speaking up on behalf of women in the assemblies. I am making the voices of women heard in my village. 

Some of the issues I am speaking up about with the local authority in my village are women's inheritance, girl's education, women's economic power, sexual violence against women and girls, and women's ability to speak out and express their ideas. The local authority has picked up on and addressed some of the issues. 

My village chief does not hesitate to contact me after my position. He even named me 'Nyumba Kumi' (The Ten Houses) since I manage and represent ten households. 

As of now, I have assisted three women in my village to get back their inheritance after they were unlawfully denied their right to inherit since they are women. My efforts are not just in the changes I initiated but in the courage I sparked in the women in my village. I am hopeful that one day, my fearless voice will shatter all the barriers and bring a new era of equality to my village. 

A woman, Cinama, stands and smiles proudly. Behind her is a foundation of bricks
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