International peacekeeping in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is entering its third decade after years of regional conflict and two multinational wars. The detritus of this unrest has left behind instability exacerbated by a mix of violent groups, especially in the DRC’s eastern region and neighboring countries.
Now the country is home to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), a 21,000-strong multinational peacekeeping force that works to bring peace to the region using “all necessary means” to protect civilians, humanitarian workers and others who live under the threat of violence.
Serving in that effort are the men and women of the Malawi Defence Force, who form the Malawi Battalion, or MALBATT as it is commonly known. The 850-member battalion brings with it a warm-hearted approach rooted in Southern Africa’s ubuntu tradition, which stresses human relations, particularly that all people belong to each other in a shared sense of humanity. Malawi’s Soldiers are not just in the DRC to protect civilians, but also to attend to their needs.
The war in the DRC has ravaged societies and caused many to become displaced or flee to other countries. With that disruption has come lawlessness that inflicts pain and suffering on civilians, particularly women and children. Sustained war has left its mark on the people. Poverty, hunger and lack of medical care are the face of conflict in the DRC.
FEMALE ENGAGEMENT TEAMS
Sexual and gender-based violence also is a long-standing problem in the DRC. Violence against women and girls instills fear and can be used to coerce cooperation with armed groups. Sometimes, women or girls are raped, killed or taken as wives or soldiers. Sometimes, government security forces or local leaders take advantage and participate in the abuse. In 2018 alone, the U.N. documented 1,049 cases of conflict-related sexual violence in the DRC, although the majority of incidents go unreported.
MALBATT 5 deployed to the eastern DRC as part of MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade in May 2017 after working with military trainers from the United Kingdom. The battalion rotated out in August 2018. About 50 battalion members are women. From their ranks were established two Female Engagement Teams of 10 women each.
Each team included a nurse, a clinician and a social worker. One team worked out of Sake, South Kivu. The other was based in Beni and Mavivi in the North Kivu region to focus on Mayi-Moya, Oicha and Eringeti towns.
MALBATT’s Female Engagement Teams, under the command of Col. Luke Yetala, responded to the United Nations’ call for the deployment of more women to address the needs of women and children during conflict. The importance of having women serve in multinational peacekeeping operations is promoted and supported at the highest levels of the U.N.
“Female personnel are key to the success of U.N. peacekeeping missions, as they broaden the skill set available on the ground,” said Bintou Keita, assistant secretary-general for U.N. Peacekeeping Operations, in an interview with Medium U.N. Peacekeeping. “Their presence in the field empowers women in the host communities, allows our operations to address specific needs of female ex-combatants during the process of demobilizing and reintegration into civilian life, and contributes to making the peacekeeping force approachable to women and young people in the community.”
ENGAGING FACE TO FACE
It is in that spirit that Malawi’s Female Engagement Teams work with communities in the eastern DRC to win the hearts and minds of civilians. Before deploying, team members underwent training in civil-military cooperation, influence operations and Swahili.
The women then met with key leaders in deployment areas to familiarize themselves with local issues. It is through these leaders that team members assessed the problems experienced by local women so that they could form appropriate outreach programs. They conducted needs assessments by providing medical care and through other programs.
Civilian women in conflict areas often are more comfortable around other women and are more likely to trust them with their concerns and needs. Since the Female Engagement Teams have been used, more information has emerged about the suffering of women and children in the DRC.
“They are able to give details and explain how they were raped, sexually harassed, even how their friends or sisters were gang raped and later killed,” said Cpl. Chipiliro Banda, a MALBATT Female Engagement Team member. “The problems that these women face are so numerous. In addition to rape and sexual harassment, the environment in general is not that safe for women and children to live in.”
The threat of violence is not the only concern for locals in the conflict zones. Food and clean water are scarce because rebels often steal what little is available. “The water they are drinking is not that safe for human consumption,” said Sgt. Mercy Dzalani, a MALBATT Female Engagement Team leader. “Good water sources are very far from safe areas, and the moment they go there to fetch water, they become prone to rape and other forms of human rights abuse.
“We are trying our level best by sensitizing them on human rights and how to report abuses,” Dzalani continued. “We also do some basic needs assessments and come up with ways of mitigating them. Some of the victims have been provided with medical care, and we will continue giving them the proper insight of how to avoid and report violence.”
Other MALBATT Soldiers identify vulnerable groups that need contact from Female Engagement Teams through robust offensive patrols, and they also provide security for female MALBATT members as they carry out their service duties. Female team members engaged civilians in Mavivi, Oicha, Mayi-Moya, Eringeti, Sake, Goma and Luwindi towns in North Kivu province.
Female Engagement Team members build trust and goodwill among residents by visiting village chiefs, women’s groups and local hospitals, where they work in maternity wings. They also interact with religious groups, including women’s choirs and guilds. Winning the trust and confidence of local leaders is key to mission success. It is because of that important work that they can then meet vulnerable women, hear their needs and address those needs through mobile medical outreach work and by sharing information on gender-based violence and conflict-related sexual violence.
In some cases, the team members bought uniforms for church choral groups and chairs for churches, and invited women to attend prayer and encouragement services at nearby MALBATT bases.
Despite the many challenges and dangers of the eastern DRC, members of the Female Engagement Teams bring peace and hope to civilians by meeting their needs with tenacity and a positive attitude. They are making a difference, and local civilians are noticing.
“In the past we could not visit our gardens, go to work or conduct any business activity because of violence from the Allied Democratic Front,” Pascal Muhindo, manager of Radio Motto in Oicha, said of one of the many active armed insurgent groups. “But since MALBATT and their sister units deployed in the Beni to Eringeti axis, much has improved.
“We have seen locals visiting their gardens, I go to work daily, children and women are being taken care of, and we at least get some medical care from MALBATT.”
Written by Captain Wilned Kalizgamangwere Chawinga, Malawi Defence Force.