DR Congo's 'Mama Parity' fights for women's role in politics

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Bukavu (DR Congo) (AFP) - In DR Congo, where women struggle against terrible violence and inequality, a committed activist fights against all the odds to give women a third of all elected posts.

Known as "Maman Parite" -- "Mama Parity" in English -- Esperance Mawanzo hasn't stopped to catch her breath since a hotly disputed January electoral law cancelled out President Joseph Kabila's pledge to bring more women into politics.

Maman Parite lives and works in Bukavu, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where women still suffer in the wake of a savage conflict that infamously saw all sides using rape as a war weapon.

Armed with hope, the activist's Parity Observatory rights group encourages and prepares women to run for office.

"Become a candidate for the local (urban) or provincial elections!" reads the South Kivu province electoral clinic's freshly printed flyers, some six months ahead of a local poll.

The east of the vast central African country was wracked by conflict even before two terrible wars (1996-2003) gripped the area. Scores of thousands of women have been brutally raped by armed groups or soldiers.

In October 2013, Kabila pledged better political representation for women. But the electoral law that parliament approved after protests early this year killed up to 42 people dropped all references to a women's quota.

Practically all opposition MPs were absent from the voting session that approved the law, seen widely as a manouevre to keep Kabila in power beyond his mandate.

To Maman Parite, the new electoral law is "sexist".

- 'Men underestimate us' -

Candidates must prove they have a degree, and pay a $100 (90 euro) non-refundable fee to run in local polls -- requirements that are simply beyond most women's reach in a country where the UN says 2.5 million girls are out of school.

Both demands are "discriminatory", objects the short-haired, bespectacled activist, for whom the under-representation of women in politics reflects the inferior status often imposed on her gender.

Travelling through the scenic hills of South Kivu, one can only be struck by the frequent sight of columns of women and girls bent low by hefty bundles of crops and firewood on their backs. You don't see men doing such work.

"Men underestimate us," says a female lawyer who helps Maman Parite's group, adding that the likelihood of a man even agreeing to be represented legally by a woman is virtually impossible.

Asking not to be named, she also denounces sexual harassment by colleagues and magistrates. "If we win a case, we're accused of having slept with the judge."

Maman Parite's electoral clinic seeks to help women who feel drawn to politics, whatever their views and affiliation.

As the mid-April deadline for candidate registration draws near, "we help women with advice (on how) to present their applications..., conduct their campaign and... be in contact with the media", Maman Parite says.

Financed by funds from abroad, the NGO has other outposts in the country, but it is mainly in South Kivu that the clinic can provide full support for candidates.

The goal of women holding 30 percent of political posts is most unlikely to be reached in 2015. But for the activist, the process is long-term.

"Fifteen years ago, we didn't talk" about women's issues, she points out.

"In 10 years, 15 years, we shall have another Congo."

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