Si Jeunesse Savait (SJS), Democratic Republic of Congo
Based on an interview with Stephanie Mwamba, supplemented by written materials from SJS and Mama Cash
Si Jeunesse Savait (SJS) began as an informal gathering of young Congolese feminists in the capital city of Kinshasa; in 2005 they established SJS to amplify young women’s voices and draw attention to issues of concern to young women that tend to be overlooked by the Congolese women’s movement. Since then, SJS has used a range of strategies to promote and defend the rights of young women, lesbian women, bisexual women, and trans people, with a focus on their sexual and reproductive rights, and in particular their right to express themselves and their sexuality free from violence. SJS has done groundbreaking research on violence against lesbian and bisexual women in Kinshasa, and carved out a niche within the Congolese women’s movement based on their expertise in using information and communication technologies (ICT) to address diverse forms of gender-based violence. The organisation’s trainings have built the ICT capacity of a wide range of women’s organisations, convincing them of the importance of using technologically innovative strategies to disseminate their messages and create safe online spaces for organising and community-building, and expanding their awareness of and attention to addressing ICT-related violence. Thus, SJS’s work lies at the intersection of gender, violence, generational politics, sexuality, and technology.
SJS recognises that the role emerging and established information and communication technologies play in women’s lives is complex. The organisation’s trainings and campaigns approach ICT as both an asset and a liability when it comes to gender-based violence: emerging ICT tools offer new strategies for engagement, awareness-raising, organising, movement-building, AND advocacy, but they also render women and girls vulnerable to new and insidious forms of violence. In light of this complexity, one of SJS’s most groundbreaking achievements has been to simultaneously build the ICT capacity and awareness of the women’s movement while squarely placing awareness of ICT-related violence on organisational and movement agendas. The organisation’s engagement with women’s organisations across the DRC—as well as students, journalists, and public officials—has helped spark a more robust public conversation on the connections among gender, sexuality, violence, technology, media culture, and democracy.
Mobilising around current events has proven an effective strategy for sparking and sustaining such conversations. For example, SJS drew on the case of a young woman who was filmed by her boyfriend while they were having sex as an entry point to raise awareness of how communication technologies can be deployed as a form of gender-based violence. The girl’s boyfriend transmitted her image to his friends via Bluetooth technology, and the images quickly went viral and could be viewed across the DRC via Facebook and other social networking sites. The girl was forced to leave school, and eventually flee the country, since her life had become unbearable. SJS uses this incident to spark school-based conversations on how ICT can be used to violate young women’s rights and police their sexuality, encouraging students to consider this incident as a form of violence against women. At the same time, SJS encourages young women to ‘Take Back the Tech,’ empowering them with tools such as blogging skills and access to a password-protected website where they can share experiences of violence and harassment freely and without judgment. This allows them to cultivate a positive relationship with technology, tempered by an awareness of the risks it can entail.
Another key constituency in FJS’s work is female journalists and communicators, many of whom are subject to violence, harassment, and threats from the State, particularly when they speak out on the pressing issue of sexual crimes against women in the DRC and denounce the government’s lack of attention to this issue. SJS works to build community and solidarity among
female journalists, connecting them with local women’s organisations and encouraging them to organise their own networks and campaigns. SJS also works to place the issue of violence against female journalists on the agendas of broader movements concerned with the human rights of journalists, encouraging them to rally support and solidarity behind female journalists who have been publicly or privately threatened by public officials by signing petitions, organising protests, and agreeing to deny perpetrators air time until they apologise and take responsibility. Slowly, this advocacy is broadening traditional understandings of violence and deepening youth, media, and public understanding of how diverse forms of violence conspire to keep women silent and suppress discussions of their sexual rights, while empowering women with the tools to develop and advance a new agenda.