A widow works as a porter at a market in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Nick Long for VOA)
A widow works as a porter at a market in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Nick Long for VOA)

GOMA - In the Democratic Republic of Congo, many widows of soldiers who were killed fighting rebel group M23 last year are trying to collect their husbands’ or partners’ pay.

In principle, the widows of Congolese soldiers are entitled to payments from the government based on their late husbands’ earnings. Many women who were left at a military camp in Goma when the army retreated from the city last year now are claiming this entitlement.

Josee Ikwalankwi, coordinator of a group that works with widows at the camp, said that many of them have not yet received a payment from the army. Some, she says, do not know in what name their husbands collected a salary, while others don’t even know if their husbands are alive or dead.

The United Nations' mission in Congo, MONUSCO, has been trying to help. Ouedrago Sereme Asseta, who works for MONUSCO’s gender affairs unit, said there are conditions for a widow to receive a DRC army pension.

Widows' pension

Most of these women don’t realize, she said, that to qualify for a widows’ pension they need to show their marriage was officially recognized. She warns soldiers’ partners that living with a soldier for up to five years as a girlfriend doesn’t make you his wife.

DRC army spokesman Colonel Olivier Hamuli told a slightly different story, saying the army recognizes marriages that are acknowledged as such by society, which means the women do not have to be legally married to the soldiers to qualify for a pension.

Members of Congolese Women's Association, who have
Members of Congolese Women's Association, who have been widowed by conflict, are reflected in a window during their meeting in the town of Rutshuru in North Kivu, east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, May 2012.

He said widows are receiving regular payments if their papers are in order. But he added that some claimants were not the soldiers’ real wives, and in cases where soldiers’ records’ were not computerized it can take a month or two for the claims to be processed.

Asseta of MONUSCO recommends civil marriage to all wives, of both civilians and soldiers. That way they stand a better chance of defending their rights under Congolese law, especially if they become widows.

For example, she said, the new Congolese family law recognizes a woman’s right to inherit a quarter of her late husband’s property, whereas traditional marriages do not.  According to custom in Congo and throughout the region after the husband has died, the widow usually has no right to his land.

Defense of rights

According to many activists, most Congolese women are ignorant of the law or unable to defend their rights in court, so many widows are still evicted from their homes by their husbands’ relatives. Without property they find it difficult to obtain loans and often are forced to take the most menial jobs, said Asseta.

She said in Bukavu, the biggest town in South Kivu province, all the porters who carry 100-kilo bags of maize or other produce from the port to the market are widows. It is the hardest and worst-paid work, said Asseta. She emphasized it is work that in a sense dishonors these women, and yet they are obliged to do it for next to nothing.

VOA interviewed a group of these porters at a market in Goma. Most of them said they were widows. Mugisho Irenge explained why she did the work.

"I carry this load because I don’t have money," she said. She said if she had a bit of funds she could start up as a trader, but since she doesn’t - and she has children to feed - she literally has to carry the heavy load.

Asseta told VOA that hardly any of the aid agencies or NGOs in the DRC have programs specifically targeting widows. Some argue that to create groups specifically for widows could marginalize them further.

This could be the reason why there are hardly any widows’ associations in Goma. There are a few in rural areas that seem to have been organized by people from Goma, who employ the widows as laborers.

It is unclear whether widows benefit from creating their own groups - but no one else seems to be making their needs a priority.