Lecture highlights women’s issues in Congolese society

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USAID Director of the Democratic Republic of Congo Diane Putnam spoke to students regarding the role of women in the DRC. Photo: Spencer Davis.

On Monday October 21, the USAID Mission Director of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Diane Putnam, gave a talk in Rockefeller about the role of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Though Putnam’s program focuses on bettering the entire country, specifically through creating peace and stability, protection for civilians, stronger government institutions, economic success and more effective social services, the talk pertained specially to the women living in Congo and the part that they play in the country’s complex situation.

To begin the talk, Putnam announced her plan for the evening: to take the audience through some background information on the DRC, talk about the status of women, mention ways in which US organizations and the government have helped and will help in Congo, then offer her concluding thoughts.

Putnam began by referring to the DRC as the invisible state. She said, “The DRC is a state not only failed, but non-existent.” She explained that 65-75 million people inhabit the country, and that it is consistently at the very bottom of socioeconomic indicator lists. Additionally, she stated that although the country has a great amount of arable land, it actually imports food and relies on exports such as copper, tin, gold, diamonds and oil.

Putnam then narrowed in on Congolese women’s jobs and experiences. She told the audience that women perform 80 percent of the country’s agricultural work, and that the Congo was the worst place in the world to be a mother. She referenced laws that required women’s submission to men, as well as laws that prevented women from traveling about without the permission of the significant men in their lives and that ruled non-relocation, refusal to move with a husband, as grounds for divorce. She also told the crowd that only half of young Congolese girls complete school, as opposed to the 74 percent of boys who do so, and attributed this disparity to a high rate of sexual assault, as well as the schools’ unwillingness to accommodate the needs of girls who have begun experiencing menses.

Putnam remained optimistic, however, pointing out slow but steady progress in population growth, maternal death rates, and the completion of primary school for young girls. She then voiced her belief that it would be young women who would determine the future of the DRC, and it would be females who would create plans for the future.

Putnam was brought to campus by The World Affair Council of the Mid-Hudson Valley, which expressed interest in the Vassar Africana Studies Department hosting the event on campus. When asked what encouraged him to bring Putnam to campus, Vassar Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Africana Studies Zachariah Mampilly replied, “Initially, I was not aware of her work. But I did ask around and heard that she was an outspoken figure who had gained a reputation for challenging the increasing tendency to militarize humanitarian aid within USAID and AFRICOM. So I thought she would be an interesting person to bring to campus.”

He continued, “Diane is an undeniably important figure in the American aid community in charge of a massive aid program. She is also an important figure within America’s military establishment, especially within the problematic Africa Command. So students benefit from interacting with figures like her.”

Mampilly explained his appreciation for the points made in the talk, but also his hope that students would be able to contextualize it. He said, “Personally, I found her lecture illuminating for several reasons. While I thought she did a good job outlining the challenges facing Congolese women, I found it more interesting for what she didn’t address directly in her discussion, namely the political context of Congo’s woes and America’s role within it.”

Mamphilly continued, “I do hope that our students are sophisticated enough to situate Diana’s lecture within a broader critique of American foreign policy behavior, particularly in relation to the continent.”

Many students were enthusiastic about the talk. Caitlin Munchick ’17 explained, “I’m from South Africa, but I never really learned about other African countries in school, so I wanted to learn a little more on Congo.”

For other students it was their interest in the global development of the Congo that led them to the lecture. One such student said, Kate Langdon ’17 expressed, “I was curious as to how the state’s past manifests itself in present day politics and society.” Andrew Jdaydani ’14 added, “It discussed the role of development from a perspective that is often avoided, the perspective of women.”

Although Congo is one of the largest and populous countries in the world, discussions surrounding its current affairs are typically plagued with misrepresentations and stereotypes. “Congo, one of Africa’s most dynamic countries, sadly remains little more than a caricature in the Western imagination,” explained Mampilly. “Start with the fact that almost every article ever written in the Western media cannot avoid the tired ‘heart of darkness’ reference and you begin to see the depth of the problem.”

This is not unexpected as the Congo rarely finds itself headlining news except for occurrences of major violence or government corruption. Munchick explained, “I haven’t really heard much talk about the Congo at all, but what I have heard usually leans toward how dangerous or violent it is there, which [Putnam] argued against. There’s violence but it’s limited to a certain number of people and areas.” Often the area is addressed as though similar to the rest of Africa, generalizations Putnam challenged.

The audience asked a variety of questions ranging from the government’s corruption to the future role of Congolese women in politics. Throughout the lecture and discussion Putnam focused on the importance for all forms of aid in the area. Concerning the role of Americans, Professor Mampilly elaborates, “I do hope that our students are sophisticated enough to situate [Putnam’s] lecture within a broader critique of American foreign policy behavior, particularly in relation to the continent.”

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