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It’s hard to be a young woman in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

When something goes wrong, many people tend to blame girls and women. If a child cries, it’s his mother’s fault. If a team is unsuccessful, the blame is cast on female members. If a man’s car breaks down, somehow he traces mechanic failure to his wife.

“When that’s all you hear for your whole life,” one young woman told me, “it gets in your head. We start to blame ourselves for problems that we had nothing to do with.”

In a series of leadership workshops in September 2015 and March 2016, 40 students from 12 universities in North and South Kivu grappled with the social norms and stereotypes that stand between women and equality. The leadership training is part of International Alert’s Tushiriki Wote project, which focuses on increasing the economic, political and civic participation of women as a basis for lasting peace.

The project works with both male and female university students to challenge traditional gender roles and discuss strategies on how to increase women’s decision-making power. Working with local partners, International Alert has established 12 dialogue groups at 12 universities in four main towns in North and South Kivu, reaching around 350 students, who meet twice a month to discuss gender and governance-related topics.

Instead of being blamed for failures, these young women want to be recognized for success. Some want to give voice to women in their country by becoming journalists. Others want to fight for justice through law and politics. At the same time, all recognize that social change is a daily struggle that can’t wait until they receive their university degrees.

As part of the leadership program, students design and implement projects focused on activism. From fighting racial discrimination to starting a jewelry co-op for women without a source of income, the projects aim to create tangible change in their communities. Although they are excited about the projects, they admit that it is not easy to work for change.

“The hardest part is ignoring everyone who says that I can’t do what I set out to do,” one student confessed. “But we have to believe in ourselves and keep trying.”

A group of women leaders from North Kivu, South Kivu and Kinshasa have volunteered to become the mentors of these students. International Alert and its local partners will continue supporting these students through regular monthly meetings and leadership training until the end of the project in July 2018.

When asked how they get the strength to continue, they noted that they are part of a greater world struggle for the rights of women and girls. “Malala started standing up for girls when she was in middle school,” one woman explained. “That means I have no excuse not to start now.”

Photo Credit: Ashley Lackovich- Van Gorp 

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