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Women Activists Fight against Extractive Industries in Congo

  • JASS

Written by Maggie Mapondera & Winnet Shamuyarira 

“We’re activists and we’re defending rights,” says Aimée Espérance Matungulu Nduwa. She and other activists in Bandundu, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), are determined to protect their community from the heavy mining industry that is tearing it apart. Aimée works with the Rural Women for Development Collective to fight against the devastating impact of mining on her community and the environment. By destroying arable land, the companies rob rural communities—particularly women—of their livelihoods and means of survival. Although the women face threats from the mining companies when they protest, they refuse to give up. “For us, it’s a vocation that we cannot abandon because of threats,” she explains. In an interview with JASS’ Maggie Mapondera and Winnet Shamuyarira, Aimée—a participant in the WoMin-JASS Feminist Movement Building School (Feb. 20-Mar. 10) for women organizing against extractive industries—talks about her fight to protect communities, livelihoods, and human rights.

Current Landscape in DRC

The scramble for resources by energy and mining companies in particular is well-documented. According to the WATSHA Gold Mining Group, “[DRC] is estimated to have $24 trillion (equivalent to the combined Gross Domestic Product of Europe and the United States) worth of untapped deposits of raw mineral ores, including the world’s largest reserves of cobalt and significant quantities of the world’s diamonds, gold and copper. Most of the resource extraction is done in small operations, known as Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM), which are unregulated.” There are 8 million men and women engaged in artisanal mining across the continent, a dangerous and unregulated field, governments and international actors pay little attention to them. Women make up a majority of artisanal miners in many mines and countries, but women miners often lack access to technical education, formal mining claims, and decision-making power in the mines. And given the role of conflict minerals in fueling rebel groups and contributing to instability, how can women artisanal miners be enabled to be economically empowered to improve their lives and contribute to development? With little to no safeguards, ASM companies aim to maximize profits and extract resources at the lowest possible cost without regard for its impact on the on the lives and the environment. This strategy is increasing inequality, fueling violence and destroying natural resources. Recent Report, “On Dangerous Ground” by Global Witness names DRC among the 16 deadliest countries that indigenous and environmental activists were killed in 2015 for speaking out against these devastating impacts.

Interview with Aimee Espérance Matungulu Nduwa

What are the big issues related to extractives that women in your community face right now?

The companies and government justify these mining projects to achieve “development” and create jobs. But in reality, only a few people benefit, and it’s not the community—and especially not women. They’re not hired, even for sub-contracting work. So, despite claims that the mines provide employment, women cannot even earn a subsistence income.

In part because they lack knowledge of extractives industries, women have little involvement in efforts to resist mining. They are seen as “victims”—not as people with a voice and stake in community decisions. Yet once the industries have settled in, women are the most directly affected. The companies forcibly remove them from places where minerals are found, causing them to lose the lands that are their means of subsistence. As they become poor and displaced, women are often pushed into sex work or other marginal enterprises in order to survive.

What are some of the threats/risks that you face as a defender, and that your community faces?

Without access to land, women have no say when land is confiscated for mining projects—they’re not even consulted. And women are further disempowered because they’re excluded from local-level decision-making positions. As a consequence, women have no control over the mining sector, and become victims of various forms of violence and social abuse. In the face of all these problems, women bear the brunt. For example, for those who work in the mines, there seems to be no laws protecting workplace rights, and no ways to take legal action in cases of sexual assault. Nor do women have protection for, or access to, financial resources.

When local populations claim compensation—for example, for being displaced or having their livelihoods compromised—they are often threatened by the police. This tends to happen especially when artisanal (small-scale) mining zones, which are beneficial to local communities, are either absent or confiscated.

How do you strategize against those threats? How do you survive?

In the Rural Women for Development Collective, we promote a gender analysis and action, including different ways that women can get involved and sit at the table—to have voice, be in the decision-making positions, and be the drivers of change.

As activists, we find a sense of safety and security through l’Initiative pour la Transparence dans les Industries Extractives (the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative) a space for interactive discussion and exchange. We speak out, publish reports, and advocate for more citizen participation. We do a range of activities, such as monitoring cases of human rights violations in communities. We also raise awareness about alliance building amongst women, so that NGOs and local women can advocate for better mining policies at national, regional, and sub-regional levels. We work to build collective strategies against the marginalisation of women and their voices.

What impact did the WoMin-JASS Feminist Movement Building School have on you?

The WoMin-JASS Feminist Movement Building School allowed me to understand that feminism is not a fight against men, or a European concept. It’s a women’s movement, led by women, that fights against all forms of discrimination and inequity. For me, this means challenging the globalised system of patriarchy. It means recognising women as revolutionaries who can fight for their communities, and who can bring a new perspective on development that is close to nature and protects land and energy.

At the school, we did an exercise called the “Master’s House.” It helped us see how patriarchy works, by building male domination into all aspects of social life and institutions. And because we women have grown up in this environment, we’ve come to absorb the ideologies ourselves! The question is how to tear it down and build an alternative house for ourselves and for our communities.

The school also broadened my understanding of power. I realized that, beyond the negative forms of power – for example, oppression – there are also positive forms. I learned about the power I have within myself, and the power I have with others to create change. Altogether, these experiences helped me realize that we need to work together through movements. They allowed me to understand the capacity and power I have to change the world.

What do you envision for the future?

I want to see a DRC without mining everywhere. A DRC with sustainable and transparent management of natural resources. A DRC with a strong local community compensation policy for damages caused by mining activities and forced removals. A DRC that doesn’t rely solely on forests, mining, and hydrocarbons for economic growth. A DRC where reforms are beneficial to the state and its population.

There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. For instance, we need more spaces for public consultation—within local communities and with NGOs—to assess the environmental impact of extractive industries on peoples’ lives. And to look at mitigation and rehabilitation plans that can be shared with community leaders and local authorities. We have to raise awareness on the risks and vulnerability faced by women in the mining sector—in the context of armed conflicts at the regional level—because this is a reality of life in DRC. And we need to define strategies to promote the active participation of women in the fight against extractive industries, so that we can develop more protection mechanisms for women – in our laws, policies, and institutions.

Picture description: Winnet Shamuyarira (left) and Aimée Espérance Matungulu Nduwa (Right)

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