“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 mountains of the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. It was here 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 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, walk miles each day to fetch water and are the ones responsible for ensuring the family survives, women are still largely viewed as the inferior sex and expected to be submissive. In spite of these societal “norms”, I witnessed women quietly as well as not so quietly working each day for change for themselves and for the future of their children and 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 (DRC). 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 has been able to educate her children and shared that for the first time in many years her family has enough to eat. Optimistic about the future, Faida aspires one day to own domestic animals.
Women harvesters sort potatoes in 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 market and which are too small to be sold — the smaller spuds will be used as seeds for the next planting season.
Farmer Cornelius and his wife Adama are among the most successful recipients of Asili micro-financing; their partnership is also notable because this husband and wife duo work together in the fields in a country where it is more common for the woman to do the majority of the planting and harvesting.
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. Ssaid Mapendo, "We are strong, but we are not educated."
Men assist women harvesters to secure large bags of potatoes before they are carried up the side of a mountain outside of Bukavu in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Neither man carried a sack up the mountain.
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 do not have 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.” (Women for Women International)
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 I spoke with expressed gratitude for the opportunity to work and thus be able to educate and feed their children.
A survey conducted in two districts surrounding Bukavu found that women in rural Congo spend an average of eight to nine hours per day doing agricultural work, three to four hours performing domestic work and two hours fetching water and gathering firewood.
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 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 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 supporting gradual but deep-rooted and sustainable change in one of the harshest environments in the world. For decades, the Congolese have been recipients of international handouts; while effective in the short run, this method of aid is rarely sustainable and 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.