IMG_0016Given their many conflicts in recent decades triggered by strategic geopolitical position, human rights remain a very difficult issue in the Kivu regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In 1999, an assistance project was launched in the province of South Kivu in the Ruzizi area, near the border with Burundi. Called the Association of Christian Mamas for Assistance to Vulnerable (AMCAV), the organisation provides services to vulnerable groups and women who have suffered sexual violence.

Bernadette Ntumba, Coordinator at AMCAV, is a proactive Human Rights Defender (HRD) and a role model for women in the region. Protection International met with Bernadette, who shared her experience in defending human rights.

PI: How did you become a woman human rights defender?

BN: I started defending women’s rights in 1999. At the time I was particularly touched by the abuses perpetrated against elderly women who were regarded as witches, expelled, abandoned and rejected by their families and communities, and at times even burned alive because of certain beliefs that attribute the death of a family member to these elderly women. I initiated a local awareness-raising campaign on the respect of human dignity, and subsequently implemented much needed protection measures. At first the campaign was made up of voluntary actions, but later we intensified our intervention to reach out to and help a broader range of vulnerable people.

In parallel, I started doing advocacy with the “administrator” of the territory. and as a result more than 500 elderly women were accepted back and reintegrated into their families and communities.

This is how I have started to defend human rights; today it is my commitment.

PI: Could you describe your work with women HRDs?

BN: My work consists in raising awareness in the community on the rights of girls and women and and to advocate for them together with other HRDs based in Uvira.

But the most important thing for me is that many women HRDs rely on my work. We women HRDs are a reference point for other women activists based in the remote territories of Uvira and Fizi. These activists are often threatened because they have denounced human rights violations committed against the population, for example, harassment, arbitrary arrests, torture and abuses of any kind committed by armed groups. Since these women HRDs live and work in remote areas, they lack access to local administration, courts or law-enforcement officials. They are also not in contact with international NGOs, and therefore contact us to support their advocacy.

PI: What are the protection measures for women HRDs in the Kivus today? How could we improve them?

BN: Protection measures and safeguards for women HRDs are still not applied in the Kivus today. There is a draft decree on HRD protection currently under discussion by the Provincial Assembly, but its existence is not even known in remote areas. HRDs working on women’s rights need training on how to protect themselves. In Uvira, the AMCAV are the only ones who have provided such training on public policy for the protection of human rights defenders. Still, this information would be even more useful for women in remote territories who are taking great risks in their work and not aware of the existing protection mechanisms. Furthermore, it is necessary to establish a closer collaboration system with them, from the bottom up.

PI: What HRDs networks do you belong to?

BN: I am part of the Network ‘HRD at Risk’, which is in fact lead by a man. Personally I think it would be useful to have a women HRD network in the territories of Uvira and Fizi. This would allow for better exchange of information and good practices among women. I think it would also boost cooperation between women HRDs and help strengthen their capacities. This network could have a woman at its head and as primary focal point.