writer Mavic Cabrera-Balleza speaks with Sylvie Niombo
Francoise Mukuku, ICT activists from Congo-Brazzaville
and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) respectively. They discuss
various facets of the information and communication technologies and
the context to which they apply in the DRC . The interviewees
elaborate on how ICTs can be used to reduce incidence of violence
against women and how it is also widely used in ways that aggravate
the violence and violate privacy laws. They also explain why access
to ICTs is critical to the DRC and how it can be used to achieve the
Millennium Development Goals.
Mavic Cabrera-Balleza (MCB):Francoise and Sylvie, so nice to meet you.
Please tell me and our readers something about yourselves.
Francoise Mukuku (FM): I’m the national coordinator of a young feminist group
which I started with friends in 2001. I’m based in Kinshasa, the
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I worked as a print and broadcast
journalist for eight years and spent five years at Radio Okapi, the
first independent media in DRC which is a partnership between the
UN peacekeeping mission and Hirondelle, a Swiss NGO. After that, I
thought that my time being simply an observer and reporter of the
situation was odd.
I wanted to be part of the action and have a say on what was going on.
I also wanted to use both my activist and journalist backgrounds to
collect stories and share information with those who can do more to
address the problems we have in our country. Besides, there were also
too many people speaking on behalf of Congolese women and coming in
with assumptions, taking and presenting only the aspect of the
situation that they wanted to focus on. I was sure that as a
Congolese woman, I would have access to more information and that my
perspective would reflect the realities, the needs and aspirations
of other Congolese women.
I’m involved in communication and research consultancy work on
sexual and reproductive health; and rights and gender issues in
general with various NGO in the African Great Lakes sub-region.
passionate about technology. As much as I can, I try to put together
all my areas of work, expertise and personal interests together.
This is my idea of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT)
for development. I’m also involved in the issue of violence and ICT
because I am a survivor of violence myself. I know what access to
the technologies can do for people…they can be a very powerful tool
that can provide you with relevant information and support your
Sylvie Niombo (SN): I am currently working as regional coordinator for the
Take Back the Tech! to end violence against women project
in Congo - Brazzaville
the DRC for the Women’s Networking Support Programme of the
Association for Progressive Communications. I have been involved in
issues related to ICTs and violence against women and girls for over
am also the co-founder of AZUR Development, a women’s organization
in Congo Brazzaville. At AZUR, I have initiated several
capacity-building initiatives on leadership, women’s rights and
violence against women for young women and NGO leaders. I am
mobilizing young women to deepen their feminist analysis, develop
organizational skills, and acquire communications tools to advance
women’s rights initiatives.
worked on pioneering actions for indigenous women and girls,
including a project on access to antiretroviral therapy. My
commitment in the fight against AIDS led to the creation of the
SIDA Afrique Network,
which is now one of the main Francophone online and offline platforms
for the fight against HIV/AIDS and malaria in Africa. I have also
worked on UN projects in Congo- Brazzaville,
the International Red Cross Committee and as a consultant for Panos
West Africa (CIPACO project), the Social Sciences Research Council
As our topic is the intersection of information and communication
violence against women ( VAW) and privacy, can you describe the ICT
environment in the DRC?
Internet penetration is very low. We can’t afford to have personal
PCs in our homes nor have a mobile connection even if we have
laptops. Most of the time, people in big cities rely on cyber-cafés
where the connection is low and most of the computers are old. The
internet service providers (ISP) –to population ratio is very low
and the ISPs are concentrated in Kinshasa. The ISPs here all use
satellite and expensive technology and the custom tariffs on
electronics is very high.
to ICTs is a development issue that social movement actors in DRC are
promoting. Internet connectivity might improve now because mobile
telephone companies are providing General
Packet Radio Service
(GPRS). But then, you need an expensive smart phone to access this
service and you need to know how to use it. Language is another issue
as most of this service is not in local language. And people in the
villages would still not be able to access internet unless they come
I agree with Francoise. The
internet is not yet accessible to all in the DRC, not only because of
the high cost of internet surfing in internet cafes and having
internet connection in offices or homes, but also the cost of
equipment. However, the mobile phone is very popular and widely used
by people from all walks of life including those who are not literate
and those who live in rural areas. Media like radio are also popular
in the DRC, and there are many community radio stations that
broadcast in local languages. Many people also watch television.
How important are ICTs in the lives of Congolese? Of Congolese women
The mobile phone is used to maintain contact with family of course,
but also in business. Entrepreneurs and traders use it to stay in
touch with their clients. With the arrival of the internet and the
opening of internet cafes, students and women in small and medium
enterprise use the internet for education; for office work; for their
business; and also to find information about opportunities
audiovisual media are also important for businesses because of the
publicity and the big audience outreach. However, they are not very
accessible because of the high cost of advertising. Creative
media like theatre and short plays or sketches on the daily facts of
life are also very popular even in the other Congo, in Brazzaville.
Issues affecting women and the rest of the population are depicted in
As Sylvie said, mobile phones are very important for Congolese
people. They have replaced landline phones. People have separate
mobile phones for their offices and their homes. Sometimes when you
call an “office”, you get someone on the bus complete with all
the background noise. More and more advertisers are using them to
reach potential customers which also results in a rise in spam. …We
have yet to use mobile phones for critical services like calling the
police or emergency medical services. There is no special number for
Is there a unique way in which Congolese people use or engage with
ICTs? For example, in my country, the Philippines, people are heavy
texters. The Philippines is regarded as the texting capital of the
Buzzing people with their mobiles phones is quite unique to DRC.
Because most people are poor and can’t afford to buy credit, they
just buzz you. If you are really interested to know what they want to
say, you call them back. They can buzz you every 10 minutes for two
days until you call them. Congolese also like promotional packages
such as charging your telephone with a total of 1 dollar credit and
make unlimited calls the whole day. So we have many of these madness
days where everybody is calling everybody and they clog the bandwidth
or crash something at the telecom company.
In the DRC, SMS is widely used, especially by girls and boys. It is
also common to hear people calling journalists during radio and
How do you describe the links between ICTs and violence against women
(VAW) including sexual violence?
There is a very concrete link between ICTs and VAW. Many harassments
happen through the use of telephones. Men give a phone to their wives
to monitor their wives' activities; men bribe telecom service
employees to gain access to their wives or girlfriends’ call list.
Other forms of violations of the right to privacy take place, such as
the government tapping the lines of civil society organizations or
political activists; or cutting activists' connections, as they did
after the elections. They did this to prevent people from monitoring
the results and sharing election-related information with each other.
and more photo montages of famous people are being circulated, with
the victims in compromising situations. It is difficult to explain to
the public that those are not real pictures. I would add to this long
list the fact that we have more than 300 radios and TV stations. Most
of them are not run by professionals and they are just broadcasting
hate speech, stigma and discrimination against women who don’t
conform with what they call “African or Christians values.”
religious radio stations send out messages that if women are raped,
it is because they provoked it. They also discourage women from
speaking out. They tell women to remain silent because god is
fighting for them. I have also come across some hate speech
broadcasts, but fortunately they are not too many. These kind of
media practitioners compensate for the lack of relevant content by
just giving the microphone to any caller who can say anything s/he
wants to say without worrying whether they are violating other
people’s dignity and right to privacy.
To add to what Francoise said, ICTs
can exacerbate VAW since they are used to send
messages to women and girls. To make matters worse, if men have
access to emails and phones of their wives or girlfriends, which is
often the case, and find they have been communicating with other men,
this creates suspicion and can lead to physical violence. It is also
quite common for men to change their wives or girlfriends’ SIM
cards every now and then to ensure that they don’t have other
is also common that pictures of naked girls are circulated via
bluetooth in mobile phones among young male students. Access
to porn movies and pictures in internet cafes has also resulted into
young people imitating what they see, which in turn can result in
dimension of the link between ICTs and VAW is due to mobile phones
becoming status symbols. Mobile phones have become objects of desire
and status symbols and it is no longer rare to hear about young women
agreeing to provide sexual services in exchange
for a cell phone. There
are also reported cases of young women who use the internet to find
partners in Western countries and are sometimes lured into
Francoise also pointed out, the audiovisual media can perpetuate
stereotypes that normalize violence against women and girls,
particularly domestic violence.
On the other side of the coin, can ICTs serve as a tool to reduce the
incidence of violence?
order for ICTs to reduce the incidence of violence, they should be
used to inform and educate the population. There is also a need to
increase the production of content so that ICT tools are useful for
girls and boys.
Yes, ICTs can also be used to reduce VAW. However in most instances
when the most cruel, most brutal forms of violence happen, there is
no network or any radio program that can provide useful information.
the DRC, it is clear that many people and organisations use ICTs,
especially cell phones, computers and the internet in their
activities to end violence against women and girls. Yet in this
context, ICTs are seen more as supporting tools - for creating
documents, Powerpoint presentations, using cell phones for
communication, researching information on the internet, making
contacts on the internet, etc. Online petitions , for example
press releases and calls to action to support the causes are
There’s a campaign
that calls on users of cell phones, laptops and other electronic
devices to campaign companies to guarantee that the income from their
purchases does not contribute to sexual violence in the DRC)2
Speaking on the epidemic of sexual violence in DRC, Yakin Erturk, the
former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women once said that
access to ICTs is critical for Congolese women as it could be the
only thing that could break their isolation from the rest of the
world. What do you think of this statement?
I think the rapporteur is right but as I said before, there is no
network that supports survivors of sexual violence even when the most
brutal and cruel form of violence is committed. [In parts of] the
country where domestic violence is rampant, we need some green or
emergency numbers to allow calls to the police or hospital or anyone
who can help. We need to have some kind of Ushaidi3
website and map out the places where violence is on the rise to
encourage people to lobby their parliamentarians and other elected
officials to address the situation. Our decision-makers don’t
understand that we have much to win in investing in ICT. It is
can not only serve to break the silence, but go beyond, to educate
people about what violence against women and girls means in all its
forms. For the DRC, sexual violence has been much publicized, but not
the other forms especially in
the western media. Although ICTs have helped to generate solidarity
and commitment from international organizations, the local or
national organizations in the DRC working with women and grassroots
groups remain invisible. ICTs can help document this, and encourage
local women and girls to tell their untold stories. With ICTs, they
could share local initiatives that contribute to reducing violence
against women and girls.
The common perception of the international community about the DRC is
that the country is in a very bleak situation.
It’s been referred to as the “rape capital of the world”, “the
worst place on earth to be a woman” and many other depressing
descriptions. How do you feel about this? How can ICTs be used to put
these descriptions into a more accurate and realistic perspective?
is true that many atrocities have been committed against women and
girls in the DRC, and that makes us sad, but we are awake to the
fight to end these atrocities. This explains the strong mobilization
of women's and human rights organizations to end impunity against
perpetrators of sexual violence in this country. Building the
of women and girls, civil society and the media in the use of ICTs is
critical so we can tell the stories from the Congolese perspective
and also raise the voices of courageous girls and women who fight for
rights in the DRC. There are a number of campaigns initiated by
international organizations in the DRC on Facebook, You Tube and on
several blogs, but very few Congolese activists use ICT tools to
speak, to share stories and ideas online. Congolese activists should
take advantage of these tools.
We have that bad, long legacy of dictatorship in our country so
people are really afraid to hold their leaders accountable for what
is being done to them. But we women, especially young women, are
willing to break the silence. We didn’t really live during those
dark days when people were disappearing for not saying the right
things in public, but we still see how risky it is to go against the
norms, because we can become scapegoats. So we do it online,
everyday, more and more we are building our political consciousness.
We are taking detours like using creative stuff to understand what it
requires to end poverty, to be part of the leadership and to build
our political consciousness. We need more projects on how to exercise
our communication rights to be able to change the situation.
convinced that women are the only ones who can put an end to the
violence because they live it in their flesh and in their souls. But
you know what, when you present an ICT project to funders they ask: “
how will you implement this in a country where there is no
electricity, where there is a high level of illiteracy among women,
where there are many people fighting to put food on their table?”
ICT projects are not part of their priorities. Our biggest challenge
is to explain to them that ICT can be a solution to the problems they
want to solve. We are still struggling to explain the importance of
What about privacy? Is this seen as an issue by Congolese women? How
do you relate it to ICTs?
Privacy is a real problem, especially in a patriarchal society like
ours, where the woman belongs to the husband, the girl to the father
and the sister to the brother. You can’t have privacy; a married
woman can’t even go and answer her phone in a place where she is
alone. She will be accused of cheating on her husband. Boyfriends
want to have the password to their girlfriends’ email when they are
not sharing one email account. Most of the time it is the boy who has
the password and he can change it or use the mailbox the way he
of us who use aliases because we want to keep our privacy or
sometimes because of security reasons or both, are also put at risk
when people reveal who we are or when they say what they know about
us in public spaces. They think what they're doing is funny.
don’t care about what the law says or how it can hurt you or your
is often violated with the use of ICT tools, such as when photos of
nude young girls are circulated through cell phones or internet.
is often little awareness on the issues of violation of privacy and
personal data protection.
Is there a law that penalizes the violation of right to privacy?
Yes, there is such a law, for all sorts of privacy violation but
there is also another for délit
(defamation), when it is done through the media. You can sue the
journalist or the newspaper and I know that some people have used
these - especially politicians, but not common people. But my
greatest concern is about suing someone who has violated your privacy
from abroad. Our laws don’t have provisions for that. I once faced
a similar problem. The authorities here in Congo asked me to call
our embassy and also to contact the authorites in the country where I
thought the perpetrator was from. It did not get me anywhere. I was
not able to seek justice. Now imagine, if a techie like me can’t
find redress, what about other women who don’t even have access to
regards the law on privacy, there is no specific legislation
protecting privacy in the DRC. However, there are a few different
legal texts provisions protecting privacy (such as residence, private
correspondence, married life etc.). There is the Congolese Penal Code
dated January 30, 1940, but there are many concepts that still need
to be integrated into the penal code. The law condemns attacks on
individual freedom; protects the inviolability of the home; and
condemns attacks on the sanctity of letters (arts.69 to 79). While
electronic correspondence may be part of private correspondence, this
is not explicit.
The Millennium Development Goals identify ICTs as a critical
instrument in achieving Education for All. What do you think of this?
Do you see any other relationship between ICTs and the MDGs?
ICTs are a transversal tool to meet all the MDGs - especially in
countries like ours that are many years behind meeting all the
development goals. We need ICTs to boost all the sectors in society.
We need technologies to fill all sorts of gaps including lack of
professors and educational infrastructures; lack of access to good
university education; lack of access to all sorts of knowledge; and
lack of access to information about markets for agricultural
need ICTs to mobilize constituencies when the election comes or when
there is a special need to advocate or lobby the policy makers and
decision-makers in line with good governance. We need e-medicine and
many medical applications that can save lives. In a country as big as
western Europe but with no infrastructure, ICTs can save lives. …
I can go on and on about letting people understand how critical ICT
access is for the DRC.
can also help in development sectors such as agriculture, with
farmers' training, sharing of knowledge on agricultural technologies
and networking among farmers and buyers. This would have a positive
impact on rural women. Access to social services and healthcare
services remains a challenge for most African countries, ICTs could
be used for tele-medicine to alleviate some problems; to provide
health care to populations and help reduce maternal morbidity and
Who promotes the issue of ICT access in the DRC and how is this done?
There are many people promoting ICT access but it is not done in a
systematic way. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (
UNECA) came up with a National
Information and Communication Infrastructure (NICI) plan
to standardize what we are doing in-country with what was agreed
internationally during the World Summit on the Information Society.
The World Bank presented a sectoral policy on telecom. Some funders
have started discussions on infrastructure saying that we don’t
need a policy before infrastructure. Some civil society organizations
are also advocating for a national ICT plan before going into
sectoral planning. Where have all these led us?
has been concretely accomplished after more than four years! I like
very much the work of the civil society but we need political will to
make things happen. We have so many people, many funders willing to
help because they know that developing ICTs in DRC can benefit the
whole region. However, when they find out that there is nothing
concretely done in the country, they just give up or postpone
the sectoral strategy of development of ICT developed by the
Government is implemented, it will reduce the digital divide in the
country. There should also be more action and involvement of women's
organizations and civil society in the process of development of ICTs
in the DRC.
Thanks very much for your time and your thoughts.
Thank you for this opportunity.
You are welcome. It was great talking to both of you.
Cabrera-Balleza is the international coordinator of the Global
Network of Women Peacebuilders. She produces local language radio
productions in conflict-affected countries like Liberia and Uganda to
amplify women’s voices in policy discussions and decision-making on
women, peace and security issues and ensure women’s participation
in peacebuilding and conflict resolution.
also serves as the president of the World Association of Community
Radio Broadcasters – Women’s International Network. She is also a
member of the Executive Committee of the UN NGO Committee on the
Status Women – New York. Additionally, she is a member of Isis
International and the New York representative of the Asia Pacific
2006, Mavic has been a member of the GenderIT.org pool of writers.
1st photo: Francoise explaining to a friend how the bluetooth works
2nd photo: Sylvie Niombo, seventh from left at a Feminist Tech Exchange event.
1 A well-known French saying that literally means “if youth knew” and connotes that young people generally behave foolishly because they lack knowledge and experience. Francoise’s organization challenges this and asserts that young people do not need to undergo pain and frustrations to understand what life is about and that they can act responsibly.
2 Source: Niombo, S. Ending Violence against Women and Girls in the DRC through the Use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). June 2009.
3 Ushahidi (Swahili for "testimony" or "witness") is a website created in the aftermath of Kenya's disputed 2007 presidential election that collected eyewitness reports of violence sent in by emaili and text-message and placed them on a Google map. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ushahidi