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Congo's military takes on new challenge: caring for army widows

After two decades of war, a new census in Eastern Congo will finally count the thousands of military widows. Many do not have access to the monthly compensation promised to them. 

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    Marjori Martine at her desk in the office of the Union of the Widows of Rutshuru, a private association that Martine founded in 2004 after her husband, a non-commissioned officer in the military, died. Martine, who has independently conducted three informal censuses of military widows in Rutschuru, is helping the military with its first large-scale, formal census of military widows in North Kivu since the wars began in eastern Congo at the end of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
    Simone Gorrindo
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Marjori Martine had been living here for just a week when her husband, a non-commissioned officer in the Congolese military, died in 2004.

Left to raise five children on her own, she tried to collect the monthly payout promised to military widows. Instead, at the local military headquarters, she found other women crying and frustrated; the officers said they had nothing to give them. 

Many of the women there had received no pay of any kind in years, and Ms. Martine later found there was no form of support for them.

“I realized I had to advocate for these women,” she says. “They were like me.” 

Since then, Martine has been the one-woman team behind the Union of the Widows of Rutshuru, which advocates for compensation for military widows in the country's east. Social services in the Democratic Republic of Congo are crippled by endemic corruption and a decades-long war, and army widows are among those left behind. With no NGOs in the area to offer additional support, Martine is the face of advocacy for widows in Rutshuru: gathering data on widows and hounding military and government officials for compensation.

Now, her efforts are paying off.

For the first time since 2011, the FARDC (Forces Armees de la Republique Democratique du Congo) is launching a formal census of all the military widows in North Kivu province, which has been the epicenter of the conflict that began in the country's east at the end of the Rwandan genocide. The census is a crucial first step towards securing adequate compensation for widows, whose mandated monthly allowance is based on their husbands' modest salaries at the time of their deaths. As of April 2014, there were an estimated 3,000 military widows in North Kivu, according to Nordic Africa Institute researcher Judith Verweijen.

The 2011 census is said to have actually reduced the numbers the FARDC originally had on file for North Kivu -- it only counted widows who presented themselves in Goma -- but the new regional command that arrived in 2012 is launching this project with the goal of locating the many widows they know they are missing. There are independent representatives like Martine throughout the eastern territories who are helping to make such a large-scale and inclusive census possible.

The census is a major undertaking that is part of a broader effort towards the FARDC's reorganization and transparency, especially with their flow of money. According to the FARDC, 201 of its troops died in North Kivu in 2013 alone. Many believe the number of deaths is much higher. There has still been no nationwide census of military widows, though EUSEC (European Union Security Sector Reform Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) attempted to launch a biometric one at the beginning of the FARDC's reform in 2011.

“Our mission is to get on the ground, identify the widows and the conditions they're living in,” says Lt. Col. Cyprien Sekololo, the head of administration for North Kivu who is overseeing the census for the five military offices in the province. “We check to see if they're receiving pay, and if they're not, we find a solution to get them paid.” 

Ensuring a proper count

After her encounter at the Rutshuru headquarters, Martine launched her solo campaign. She gathered a list of widows' names in her area, and traveled to North Kivu's capital, Goma, to claim their pay. The FARDC officers agreed to pay the women something, but it was a pittance compared to what they had been receiving while their husbands were alive. 

"What we were getting was so little it was meaningless,” Martine says. “We felt totally abandoned by the government.” 

Her efforts have borne fruit over time. Martine now receives about $86 a month from the government, a little over what the average enlisted soldier earns in the Congo. Most weekends, she works from her small office at the entrance to the town of Rutshuru. During the week she teaches at the local primary school in the morning and sells goods and produce in the afternoons.

To date, she has taken three informal censuses in the territory, and she will be helping with the military's count in the Rutshuru territory.

“They are doing this because of the pressure I and other women put on them to compensate and advocate for military widows,” she says.

Why funds go missing

Martine says that the government, at its highest levels, makes a genuine effort to support widows, allocating funds to those that are accounted for. But in the mismanaged ranks of the FARDC, it's not uncommon for both official and private assistance to go missing, likely siphoned off illegally by corrupt officers. 

The new census is a large undertaking for a chronically disorganized military that often fails to pay even its own active duty soldiers. The FARDC has a longstanding problem with nonexistent “ghost soldiers,” whose pay is pocketed by officials: it's estimated that there are around 150,000 active duty soldiers in the armed forces.

This adds to the challenge for widows, who may have been displaced by the fighting and often live in rural areas with bad roads. Many women simply aren't aware of the compensation they are owed, and some of these marriages may not be registered. 

Growing into her role

The role of advocate is a natural one for Martine. When the rebel group M23 took control of much of the eastern region in 2012, she spoke out on behalf of military wives, who were especially vulnerable to rape and looting by occupying rebels.

Though conditions in eastern Congo are stabler since M23's defeat, military widows still struggle to survive, often in towns where they are outsiders. While working on the census, Mr. Sekololo says he frequently meets widows living in dire conditions, lacking food, medicine, or hospital care. Unable to give a final release date, he says the census is an "unending, continuous project."

“I push and advocate for military widows because I know that my husband traveled all throughout Congo, working hard for his country,” Martine says. “His children should not suffer while the government does nothing.”

The International Women's Media Foundation supported Simone Gorrindo's reporting from The Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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