Since 2002, the Chirezi Foundation has been working to bring about peace and improve the living conditions of Congolese people, especially those of women and children. The organisation operates in the territory of Uvira and the town of Bukavu in the South Kivu Province, as well as in North Kivu and Maniema.
Bukavu Women’s Trauma Healing and Care Centre
Congolese women have long experienced suffering, which has been pushed to extremes through conflict in recent years. Acts such as child rape, the forced induction of young girls into armies and the use of women as human shields have become increasingly common.
The Bukavu centre was set up to help care for women who have experienced sexual violence and provide them with independence from a male dominated society through access to new economic opportunities.
The initiative operates through three stages. Firstly, in an all-female cooperative, women are trained in dressmaking. After completing this stage, a woman teaches another how to sew. The second stage involves women being given a loan to begin an income-generating activity such as making soap or baking. Profits go back to the cooperative, repaying the loan. Finally, women are entitled to set up their own small enterprise or found an independent association or a women’s centre elsewhere. Throughout this process, women are given access to discuss their previous trauma with counsellors - including the option of community and family mediation.
Reintegrating Child Soldiers
The pilot scheme is based in the town of Kiliba and involves more than 50 former child soldiers from nearby villages in the Uvira territory of South Kivu. The Foundation approaches armed groups and attempts to persuade them to release some of the children in their brigades. They then negotiate with the children’s local community to be reaccepted and arrange the necessary government papers for their reinsertion. Working to help reconcile the children with their community, they are equipped with vocational skills such as carpentry and sewing to enable economic self-sufficiency.
Farm of Hope School
In 2002, the Chirezi Foundation set up a school for the orphans and street children of Kiliba who had been affected by conflict in the region. Today, more than 350 children are taught at the school and are provided with food and medical assistance. The Chirezi Foundation staff identifies the most vulnerable children and places them in one of six classes according to their ability and needs.
The aim of the initiative is that children overcome the trauma of conflict and can be reintegrated into their community. Without education, orphaned children can resort to illegal activities such as stealing and forming gangs which can destabilise communities.
Land Conflict Research, Ruzizi
Chirezi Foundation facilitators in 'Baraza' – local gatherings – have identified that conflict is often intimately related to land disputes in the DR Congo. Since 2004, this research has been exploring the important links between contested territory in Ruzizi and the war.
2-5 researchers per site are selected by their community and trained by the Chirezi Foundation. They conduct straightforward traditional interviews. The findings are then sent to government and UN representatives. Once enough information is gathered, local conferences are organised in the ‘Baraza’ so that people can come together to talk about the conflict. These findings are then complied into a final report (publication depends on funding availability). The research promises to bring about a greater understanding of conflict at a community level, throughout the DRC and beyond.
Masisi and Northern Conflict Research
Working in Masisi and Goma, the Chirezi Foundation attempts to approach all the different parties involved in the conflict: the Hutu Interahamwe forces; Laurent Nkunda (who has now been 'arrested' in Rwanda); the government; and other local tribes. The Chirezi Foundation aims to understand and report on the conflict in the hope that peace negotiations will be rekindled.
Chirezi Foundation members visit communities and gather information before inviting relevant parties to begin preliminary discussions. If these are fruitful, both government and rebel groups are invited to send representatives for serious negotiations. If initial discussions are less positive, Chirezi Foundation members wait for a later opportunity to begin negotiations or publish the findings as research.
Recent developments in Goma demonstrated the positive impact of the initiative’s approach: all parties involved in the Masisi conflict sat down together in open dialogue. The final outcome of this is, as yet, unknown.