For Congolese Women, A Trade Is The Path To Independence

A Proud baker in the Congolese city of Masi Manimba
A Proud baker in the Congolese city of Masi Manimba
Jacques Kikuni Kokonyange

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.

Thanks to their jobs, these women are on the road to self-sufficiency. They can cover basic expenses such as rent, school fees, healthcare, food ... without any help from anyone else.

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."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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