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Making Sure Women’s Rights are Human Rights
Chouchou Namegabe risked everything to fight violence against women
Don’t let those cherubic cheeks and easy laugh fool you. Chouchou Namegabe is one of the fiercest fighters on the planet for women’s rights. A self-made journalist, Namegabe grew up in Bukavu, Congo — a country that in 2010 was called the “rape capital of the world.” In the late 1990s, Namegabe founded AFEM (the South Kivu Women’s Media Association), a radio station that brought rape survivors on air to tell their stories and expose how rape was being used as a weapon against women in the country’s civil war. Despite death threats, Namegabe trained a phalanx of young women to follow in her journalistic footsteps and plans to keep fighting.
*WARNING: this video and transcript contain some graphic discussions of violence to women.
I’m from Bukavu in the eastern part of Democratic Republic of the Congo. I was born there and grew up there with my big family— nine kids. It’s a beautiful part of a beautiful country, a beautiful town surrounded with mountains and [the] beautiful Kivu Lake and yeah I [grew] up there. In a poor family, I remember it was hard for us to go to school for school fees, also to have enough to eat.
I remember my father lost his job when I was eight years old, and with all my brothers and sisters really we struggled. My mother tried to do her best to make us grow up and I remember really it was very hard, we could spend three days without having anything to eat. Nothing to eat. And in 1986 we got malnutrition [and] that’s when my mom said she had to do something, and in the same year she started selling the local beer.
It was like a competition in life in my family because when my father wanted to pay the school fees he chose to pay [for] my brothers. I had to work hard to be the best. My father asked me to look for a job, to be teaching somewhere. I said “no, dad.” I was really very young. I think I was 17, and I said “no, I won’t teach. It’s not my choice, not my passion, I won’t do it.” We had a clash with my father, but at the same time I met with a woman who really she took me from the road and brought me to the radio station. She was working as a journalist, her name is Aziza Bangwene.
From there, she — when we met, she told me, “You are like my sister; you look like my sister. You are beautiful. I love you. Come with me.” And she brought me to the radio station. For me, really, it was like, it brought a light in my life. I learned a lot. She taught me how to speak, how to use [a] microphone, how to write news, how to broadcast, how to make reports — everything. And really it brought a big light in my life. And it’s from there that I started learning about women’s rights because I had to make programs with human rights activists or to make shows where I tell people what to do, for example. I learned a lot from the radio, and the first place was to go to my family and change it.
I learned that human rights were women’s rights, [that] women have the same right as the men, and I taught it — because really it was like to teach — to my family. Between 1998 to 2001, there was a lot of things that was done against human rights and from that I — no one could talk about it, no one. Some human rights NGOs could report, but to make it known to my local people, no one could talk about it because it was rebellion [was unauthorized].
As a journalist, when we opened the radio, we said we had to do something for women. They were the ones who paid for that. There was [a lot of] rape and atrocities against women: some women were buried alive, torture, and many things. They knew that women were half of the community and at that time we started to talk about rape. But it was really very hard as we didn’t have an appropriate word to talk about rape in Swahili, in our local language.
I remember we borrowed a word from Swahili from Tanzania and we started talking about “ubakaji,” [which is] rape. How we could talk about it? Because it’s hard — after the rape women were rejected from all the families, the community. So we decided to give them microphones to record their testimonies and we broadcasted their testimonies. At the beginning it was really very hard, and the first time we did it it was like a shock in the community. “How do you talk about sex on the radio?” We said, “No it’s not a problem of sex; it’s a problem of women.” We recorded many testimonies [that were] hard for us to believe. You know, after the rape there was many atrocities on women, they put in stones, wedges into the vaginas of women. After the rape they forced women to eat the flesh of their kids — they killed the kids and forced the women to eat the flesh of their kids. It was really very hard, and we gave only the microphone to the women.
As we were the only radio to broadcast such testimonies, we decided with my colleague [who] was my chief director, Aziza, and we founded AFEM, the South Kivu Women’s Media Association. We started to make programs and share them in other radios in Bukavu. It wasn’t very easy to work in such context of war and rebellions because as journalists we received many threats. I worked for 17 years in journalism, in the activism, and now here in the US. I’m working with Columbia as a researcher in Freedom of Expression, they have a program that is called Global Freedom of Expression, and we work by monitoring some cases of justice and [we] analyze how the justice took into account the human rights, to analyze how human rights were treated in cases of justice. I will be covering the French countries in Central Africa.