BENI - Gisèle Masika, a young divorced woman from this Congolese city, says she wants nothing of her aunt's life as a housewife. "My aunt can't do anything, her husband takes care of everything, and he has no consideration for her," she says.
Like other women in Beni, in northeastern Congo, Masika decided to learn a trade -- making braziers -- and is now doing as well as her male colleagues. Some of these women have even opened their own workshops, and employ male workers.
Mireille Kavira is a good example. This 35-year old mother of three works at the "Super Entretien" refrigerator repair workshop downtown. Thanks to this job, her children now attend a prestigious private school where most pupils are children of businessmen and local administration executives.
In the Mupanda neighborhood, at the "Dieu Merci" ("Thank God") garage, three women are repairing cars. They do the same work as their male colleagues, lying down underneath the vehicles, yanking out parts, replacing hubcaps. Their jobs have made them the backbone of their families.
Madeleine Mwayuma is already proud of her toolbox, pass key, a welding machine and electrical generator -- and now is about to open her own garage. "I realized that in life, you have to work hard and be independent," she says.
Madeleine's colleague, Pauline Mwatatu, an expert at fixing gas pumps, says that she is no longer considering marriage. She is against a union where men – once married – expect their wives to stay at home. She wants the marriage laws to be revised. According to Congolese Family Law, men are considered as the head of the household. This leads some men to believe they are allowed to humiliate and dominate their wives.
The shame of being single
In Congo, single women – even when they are rich – are often the victims of scorn and disregard, and criticized by their families and friends. But thanks to this new generation of working women, single and proud, things are starting to change.
These working women often excel in their trade. Most repairmen and tailors don’t have a great reputation in Beni – respecting deadlines is not their forte. But women, on the other hand, are great at finishing tasks on time. In their workshops, it is all about being integrity and dignity; they are fighting hard to break down stereotypes. A customs agent met in a sewing workshop near Beni's central market explains: "I nearly got arrested because I wanted to beat up the tailor who had promised he would sew me a jacket in time for my cousin's wedding. He had not even started making it. I told myself I would never trust a tailor again. But then women came along. They respect deadlines and work honestly."
Inspired by these powerful models, many women – including young singles and students – are no longer ashamed of living alone. Their uncles and brothers now understand that they can have whatever life they want without getting married. "Rather than living with an irresponsible man, it is better for my sister to live by herself," says local economic actor Matthieu Mashahuri.
Sociologist Make Mahamba says he can see the evolution in Congolese society. "It is very hard today to try and force a woman to marry a man she did not chose. In the past, a young woman could not go against her family."