“It is often said that if you educate a woman you educate a nation.
Women in the Congo are incredibly resilient, inspiring me each day with their earnest desire to live beyond survival. They have the will and the courage to turn things around for themselves and their families. My intention is to support them with tools and resources to keep growing their aspirations and hopes for a better tomorrow.
It is the least I can do.”
- Abraham Leno, Country Representative, Asili of the American Refugee Committee
One of the best examples of this resilience can be seen in the fields and the mountains of the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. It was here that I met women harvesters, farmers and those who spent their days digging trenches for clean water pipelines. I spent several weeks working with Asili, a social enterprise initiative of the American Refugee Committee, and left the country profoundly affected by much of what I had the privilege to see and experience, but little has stuck with me more than the strength and grace of Congolese women.
In a country where women do the majority of the planting, the harvesting, the cooking, and cleaning ... though they raise the children, often walk miles each day to fetch water and are the ones responsible for ensuring that the family survives, women are still largely viewed as the inferior sex, as less than their male counterparts, expected to be submissive. In spite of these societal “norms”, what I witnessed were women quietly as well as not so quietly working each day for change not just for themselves but also for the future of their children and their country.
"I will be happy when I see all of my children able to read and write."
Faida is a farmer in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. She is also a mother to 11 children and works each day in the fields outside of Bukavu, DRC to support her family. After receiving micro-financing from Asili Faida shared that she has been able to educate her children and that for the first time in many years her family has enough food to eat. Optimistic about the future, Faida aspires one day to own domestic animals.
Vermilia has been a harvester for the past seven years, working in the fields of the Panzi area outside of Bukavu in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. A mother to five children, Vermilia is the sole breadwinner for her family, supporting herself, her husband and her children. With an infectious smile, Vermilia explained that she was simply happy to have the opportunity to work.
Farmer Cornelius and his wife Adama pose for an “American Gothic” of the Congo image. This married couple is among the most successful recipients of Asili micro-financing and is also notable because this husband and wife duo work together in the fields; it is much more common for the woman to do the majority of the planting, tending and harvesting.
"My hope is for Congo to be a country that knows peace." Destin, age 37, has been working in the fields of the Eastern Democratic Rrepublic of Congo for 20 years.
Francine, Divine, Mapendo, Christenne, and Mwangaziza pose for a photograph in the potato fields of the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. None of these young women have attended school, "we are strong, but we are not educated."
Women harvesters sort potatoes in the the Panzi area outside of Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo. Having planted the potatoes months ago, the women will now determine which potatoes will be taken to the market and which are too small to be sold — the smaller spuds will be used as seeds for the next planting season.
Men assist women harvesters in securing large bags of potatoes to their backs before they are carried up the side of a mountain outside of Bukavu in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
note: both of the men walked back up empty handed
Mapendo, age 22, has been working in the fields since she was 15 years old. A mother to three, she works each day to support herself, her children and her husband.
"Due to this work I am respected in the community. They trust me."
According to research commissioned by Women for Women International, women in rural areas of Congo play a majority role in agricultural production, representing 73% of farmers and producing over 80% of food crops. Though expected to cover most of the costs of family life and education, women are far from having equal land rights, are often restricted to selling lower value produce and have little access to farming resources, training and markets. As one woman stated: ‘The woman is seen only as a producer or a worker for the family. The whole weight of the family hangs over her because she works more than the man…the woman is a tractor.’
Agricultural cooperatives are often the spark that will stimulate a community’s economy; Asili, a social enterprise initiative of the American Refugee Committee, is working to help create that spark, supporting women and men alike. Asili provides local farmers with the resources, tools, and training they need to become successful and profitable farmers. Given a loan in the form of seeds and fertilizer and provided a guaranteed market to sell their crops, farmers are able to increase their income, empowering them to have increased autonomy over their future.
In the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, harvesters work from sun up to sun down and make approximately $1.25 per day. Though the pay is low and the work hard, each of the women that I spoke with expressed gratitude for the opportunity to educate their children and put food on the table.
One survey conducted in two districts found that rural women spend an average of eight to nine hours a day in agricultural work, three to four hours in domestic work and two hours in fetching water and gathering firewood.
A group of female harvesters carry sacks of potatoes up the side of a mountain outside of Bukavu in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
In 2017 Asili supported 269 farmers, 169 men and 96 females.
With consistent work, increased income and the dignity that comes with being able to support oneself, Asili is helping to create gradual, but deep-rooted and sustainable change in one of the harshest environments in the world. For decades, the Congolese have been the recipients of international handouts; while effective in the short run, this method of aid is rarely if ever sustainable and it certainly does not instill a sense of ownership, pride or dignity in the recipient. Embracing a human-centered design approach, Asili is doing more than providing access to micro financing; they are returning something to the Congolese people that has been worn down by decades of conflict and failing international aid: self-worth and hope.