Several tribes and communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) still believe administrative leadership roles are for men. There are heated debates and arguments over power and leadership, with many arguing that it should be passed from father to son. As a result, there is a widespread belief that women cannot or should not lead.
Enter Heveline Mapfumo, the daughter of a former Mwami (chief).
Following the death of her father several years ago, a council of elders appointed Heveline to be the chief of Masisi, the village she was born into. As she was underage at the time, her uncle was granted guardianship and was required to surrender the position to Heveline when she turned 18. But this was not to be.
“When I became 18 years old, I was happy because I could now take up the role my father and the chiefs had left to me,” Heveline recalled. “At that point, my uncle refused to hand over the leadership role bestowed upon me. When I started actively pursuing it, my life was threatened. Fearing that I would be killed, in September 2020, I abandoned my studies and fled from home with my children to come here [Ndosho District, Goma] and stay with my grandmother.”
It was her active pursuit of leadership that caused the dispute between Heveline and her uncle, despite her father’s wishes for her to be chief and the appointment of the council of elders.
Asserting her rights
Despite the setback, Heveline did not give up her pursuit of what was rightfully hers. From the safety of her grandmother’s home, Heveline went to the government’s Customary Affairs division to lodge a complaint.
Once the complaint was accepted, the customary guardians, the royal family at large, and the wise men of the village were called. This is where both Andre Mirimo, an official with Customary Affairs, and CARE came into the picture.
“CARE supported us, and we went down to Masisi to map the conflicts because we have other cases where women’s rights have been affected,” he said.
In addition to his official role, Andre Mirimo is a member of the Men Engage program, which includes traditional authorities, religious authorities, and community leaders among its participants. The program seeks to raise awareness among men with the goal of having them ensure women’s rights and laws are upheld within the community.
“We educate men to consider the woman as an ally and not as an adversary,” said Sylvia Wendo, acting project manager, Gender Equality and Woman Empowerment Program for CARE DRC. “At the structural level we work more with the authorities, because we know that when there is a complaint it is to [them] that the woman must address herself to.”Heveline with her grandmother. David Mutua/CARE
The work has just begun
Following arbitration, Hevaline received a favourable ruling, with no one filing an appeal in the 30-day post-judgment window. Now, after a seven-year delay, Heveline will assume her rightful role as chief.
Heveline already knows the challenges she will seek to address.
“Our roads are quite poor and dilapidated,” she said. “The other issue is education. Children are not able to pursue their studies due to constant conflict. Insecurity is a major issue that is plaguing the residents of my village and it will need to be addressed urgently. People cannot visit their farms and as a result, they do not get access to food. When I see that I feel a lot of pain.”
Not content to remain a rarity as a woman chief, Heveline also calls on women and girls to pursue education and join hands in community development.
“To those who feel like they have been denied their rights, I call on you not to be afraid but to be valiant to fight for your rights.”