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A Batwa woman President of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the making?

3 September 2008

Matilde Ceravolo, MRG’s Fundraiser, reports back from the first day of an MRG training workshop for Batwa Pygmies and NGO workers from Burundi, DRC, Rwanda and Uganda to combat discrimination against Batwa women in their countries.

I will never stop admiring Batwa women. They are the most discriminated against, the most excluded, those with the least opportunities in life… and still they don’t stop fighting, dreaming, believing everything is possible.

It is difficult to imagine the conditions of Batwa women. We all know that people in Africa are the poorest of the poor. Try and imagine a typical rural village: houses made of mud, no running water, no electricity. One primary health point that can only cure minor diseases and the closest school is kilometres away. Children are malnourished and the eldest members of the community are rarely more than 45 years old.

This is not enough. Batwa are even more excluded. They live at the edge of these villages, or in the forest itself. Their children have skin diseases and life expectancy is even lower. They are too poor to pay for education and health care, and if they ever manage to get to schools and hospitals, they are discriminated against. People don’t want to mix with a Batwa, let alone be their friend.

This is not enough. Batwa women live in even worse conditions. They are discriminated against not only because of their ethnicity, but also because they are women. They are discriminated against by outsiders and in their own community. They are the last ones to have a share in the meal, when there is one. If the family raises the money to send one child to school, it will most probably be a boy. They are victims of sexual abuse, because it is said that having sex with a Batwa woman cures men from diseases.

But if that was not enough, nobody knows about this situation and its gravity is not recognised.

MRG has launched a new programme to protect and promote the rights of indigenous and minority women. We are now in Kampala, Uganda for the first event: a regional training workshop for Batwa and NGO workers from Burundi, DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. The participants will design concrete actions to challenge the multiple forms of discrimination against Batwa women in each of their countries.

The event started yesterday, and as organisers we were pleased to see such a varied group of women and men from different countries, speaking different languages, passionate about discussing and understanding the causes and effects of discrimination against Batwa women.

The first session was run by Kathryn Ramsay, MRG’s Gender Coordinator, who explained the system of minority and indigenous rights and how it applies to the Batwa communities. In the afternoon, a Ugandan trainer, Rosemary Nyakikongoro, guided the participants in understanding the discrimination implicit in gender roles set by society. She asked Batwa women to name a wish list of things they would like to do and cannot because it is not viewed as acceptable in their society.

Aline, a young Batwa from DRC, who MRG is supporting to attend University, said that she would like to be the President of the Republic. Why not? At MRG, we will do all we can to enable Batwa women to challenge the prejudices that prevent them from having the same opportunities as others.

In the next few days the participants will learn how to design and implement research projects. When they return to their own countries, they will document the forms of discrimination against Batwa women, so that they can build their advocacy on the results of this research, call the attention of donors and decision makers, and hold authorities accountable.

Each country group will design its own research project. We don’t know what they will come up with, but the result will certainly be surprising.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.