As one of the rare women to have held the rank of Colonel in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Munyole Sikudjuwa Honorine has dedicated her life to fighting sexual violence. Currently posted to Bunia in Ituri province, the life of this policewoman has always been punctuated by journeys into conflict zones.
This piece is part of our dossier "No Women - No Peace: 20th Anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security".
I dial the number…after two rings a bright and cheerful voice responds: ‘Hello, yes, good afternoon. I am ready for the interview; I was expecting you in fact. Just a second, I’ll connect to WhatsApp.’ In these uncertain times amidst the spread of COVID-19 and its attendant measures and restrictions, the world is reinventing itself. WhatsApp, Zoom, and the many other applications have inexorably turned into virtual meeting places for interviewers and interviewees.
The interface of the instant messaging app shows a profile photo which appears to have been meticulously chosen: the navy blue uniform of the Congolese police force, a small beret carefully positioned, braids on the shoulders, hands crossed as if to appeal to a higher power, spectacles perched on the nose; it is difficult to imagine that such an image could be that of a police officer in the DRC.
‘I began my career in the police in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I started out as a police captain for child protection and combatting gender-based violence. I was able to reduce the levels of sexual violence simply by prosecuting suspected rapists.’ Several seconds pass, Colonel Honorine takes the time to clear her throat and continues: ‘I gathered all the proof I could find and then sent it to the relevant jurisdictions.’ She remembers that when she was starting out, this police unit was virtually unknown, and was not a unit held in any great regard by the law enforcement agency. Through her determination, driven by a conviction that society must be rid of such criminals, Maman Colonelle (as she is affectionately known) succeeded in giving a new lease of life to the unit dedicated to sexual violence. Around this time, at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, the region was plagued by armed conflict and the number of women and young girls being raped rose constantly from week to week. Women’s bodies were transformed into battlefields between different armed groups; vaginas were cruelly cut and torn by bladed weapons and even three-month-old girls were raped. The people were literally abandoned to their fate.
Working side by side with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate
Amidst this unspeakable chaos, brave men and women stepped forward either to denounce, to help repair the deep wounds, or to hunt down these brutal offenders and bring them to justice. The person who would several years later become Colonel Honorine was at the time merely a police officer dedicated to bringing justice. She worked alongside a gynaecologist whose reputation extended beyond his surgery nestling in the hills around Panzi. He helped put back the pieces of the women’s shattered lives, both physically and mentally, while she took on the task of apprehending the perpetrators of these appalling acts. Some twenty years later, after receiving a Sakharov prize and numerous honours from around the world, the gynaecologist was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. ‘In Bukavu, Doctor Mukwege and I would receive anonymous letters threatening us. My children were also threatened.’ For this widow, who has raised eight children singlehandedly, the fear seems palpable when she speaks of her powerlessness in the face of threats which have had a direct impact on her children.
Behind this warm exterior is first and foremost a mother, trying as best she can to bring up her children while protecting them from the collateral ‘damage’ resulting from her job, like the time when one of her children discovered that they were at the same university as the children of someone she had had imprisoned in Bukavu. The mere mention of the memory is painful; her voice, which had been so strong up until then, starts to break, her breathing becomes shallower… this woman who seems so unshakeable in her dedication to duty, becomes angry and sad. Recovering her poise, she gathers herself together and begins to recount the story. ‘I had arrested a man in Bukavu and his children studied in Uganda at the same university as my child. When their father was convicted, they threatened my child. In the end, my child had to leave the university.’ The clear, strong voice of the police officer at the beginning of the interview has suddenly been replaced by that of a scared and helpless woman. ‘When it comes to reprisals it is my children who pay the price. Apart from this terrible episode in Uganda, some of my children who have completed their studies cannot find work. No-one wants to hire them on the pretext that their mother was a hard woman who arrested a lot of people.’ And although that breaks the heart of the mother, the policewoman’s determination does not waver; ‘Despite the threats hanging over my family, I tell myself that I have to do my job as it should be done and ensure a safer, more secure life for others.’
Fighting to implement change
Security is a theme dear to her. Currently based in Bunia, Colonel Honorine worked first in Bukavu, followed by Kisangani and finally Mambasa. For this woman who does not consider herself an activist but rather a Congolese citizen seeking justice, the word ‘security’ is synonymous with making a person safe, far from any danger, a danger which she herself has encountered time and again up close, and which at times has even prevented her from successfully carrying out her duty. And yet today, when she looks back on her life, she is proud to see the impact she has had in the regions in which she has worked. She recalls the teachers in Haut-Uele who made their pupils pregnant. ‘The young girls there wanted to go to school, they loved their studies, but often they would be locked out after the holidays, because they had been made pregnant by their fellow pupils or by the teachers. I showed those teachers that these children were like their own children and that they have to respect the law,’ she explains, while adding: ‘I remember arresting two teachers. I sent them to the public prosecutor to serve as an example to others. Shortly afterwards, I could see a real change, people summoned up the courage to come forward and report cases of violence within the police force.’
Men and women on equal terms!
The changes currently taking place have involved a whole series of obstacles which Colonel Honorine discusses with a hint of anger. ‘I work without resources, yet the work I carry out requires resources,’ she explains whilst highlighting the difference with which men and women are treated within the same police force; ‘In my profession, men are allocated a sufficient budget, but as a woman I am denied the necessary resources. In addition, I earn a meagre salary. I am a mother, I have several children and I am also a widow so my children live poor lives.’ Apart from these deplorable living conditions, Maman Colonelle tells how she has been the victim of harassment by one of her superiors. ‘Just because we work side by side with men, does not mean we can escape their advances…’ There is silence for a second or two, and then she continues her testimony. ‘When you show that you will not automatically say yes to everything they want, you become a target for those above you. We women have to learn to say no.’ Besides the harassment at her workplace, Colonel Honorine has lost count of the number of times her orders have been cancelled or even ignored simply because she is a woman. ‘In a professional capacity, people were extremely unfair towards me. Let me give you an example. When I was in Kisangani, I arrested criminals, rapists…Often I demanded that they be brought before the public prosecutor. To my great surprise, I discovered that my boss freed them during the night without informing me. That caused me problems, I was forced to leave the province to work elsewhere, as it created friction between me and my boss.’
The woman who started her career in teaching sees more women than ever before occupying decision-making positions in the DRC. When she is asked about the women that inspire her, she lists without hesitation names such as Member of Parliament Eve Bazaiba, Jeannine Mabundal, the current President of the National Assembly in the DRC, and Member of Parliament Geneviève Inagosi, who has also campaigned against sexual violence.
For Maman Colonelle the recipe for a society free of sexual violence is relatively simple. ‘Women have to know their rights. They have to defend the rights of the most vulnerable and apply the Articles of Resolution 1325’. Doing so will help underpin the battle against the insecurity that inevitably hampers the country’s development.
Translation from French by Eriks Uskalis