In the dusty yard of a youth centre, Christiane Binja posed for a portrait in front of a colourful mural.
"Take my picture with this strong African woman," said the lawyer and women's rights activist, smiling for the camera.
Activism is a dangerous business in the eastern province of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Between violent rebel groups and government crackdowns, young people challenging the status quo risk harassment, violence, jail time, and even death. Sexual violence—particularly rape—is another punishment reserved almost exclusively for female activists.
Despite the danger, Binja is undeterred. The 29-year-old loves her province and is determined to see lasting peace in her lifetime. Her goal: empower female leaders to spread their message of positive change using technology.
"The eastern part of Congo has been sacrificed [in national politics] for a long time," she said when I visited the region in July 2016. "Technology is a way to show what we're living [in North Kivu] as women."
In a country where one in three women is illiterate, Binja sees technology as a tool to empower women of all education levels and show the public how women contribute to society. In July, she organised the second annual Goma Web Activism Summit, an event for young activists to learn how to use social media, blogs, and online tools.
"Congolese women need to know their rights so they can defend themselves better"
Armed with their laptops, a few women were scattered among the male participants at the summit in the provincial capital of Goma, near the Rwandan border. Held at the Yolé Africa youth centre, the gathering brought together young leaders from across eastern Congo, including activists Ley Uwera and Passy Mubalama.
Uwera, a photojournalist using Instagram to change how the world sees eastern Congo, said her gender is a liability when she works, especially in rural areas. The 26-year-old recently got lost in an armed group's territory while working.
"There are some places you can't go as a woman," she explained. "Rape is only one of the threats—you can also be kidnapped."
In a region where 5.4 million people have been killed since 1998, being a woman can be particularly dangerous. According to the United Nations, more than 200,000 women have been raped since 1998, garnering the DRC the reputation of being "the rape capital of the world" according to one UN official and "the worst place on earth to be a woman" according to multiple media outlets.
Mubalama, an advocate for the rights of women impacted by conflict, blogs to call for more respect and justice for women in Congolese society. Writing mainly in French, her posts are openly political, including coverage of the last elections. She was awarded a Voices of the Future fellowship with World Pulse, a social network for female activists, in 2013, where she published an open letter to current DRC President Joseph Kabila.
"Congolese women need to know their rights so they can defend themselves better," she said. "I am happy to see that more women are going beyond our culture's gender norms, but women are still underrepresented in the public sphere."
Across the DRC, gender-based discrimination hampers women's leadership.
"Discriminatory social norms are massive barriers and tolerate a wide range of physical, emotional, and verbal violence against women," explained Carron Mann from Women for Women International UK.
While Binja has a supportive family, others have harassed her for not behaving like a "normal" woman.
"I am often told that I act too much like a man, even by other women," she said. "Not all Congolese women realise they're marginalised. It's a big struggle, but I have all the time in the world to change this."
The volatile political situation is another concern. After changing the constitution to extend his 15-year rule, President Kabila appears unwilling to leave office peacefully. Elections scheduled for November 2016 are likely to be delayed, and any turmoil in DRC capital Kinshasa also risks reinvigorating conflict in the fragile east.
In the era of technology-led coups, Congolese authorities are concerned about the millions of young citizens armed with the internet and cellphones. After anti-Kabila protests in January 2015, the government cut telecommunications service for weeks, citing threats to national security.
Under such circumstances, Binja said her peers are afraid to speak out. A staunch pacifist, she always invites the authorities to participate in her activities, but she is nervous as more young people are sent to prison.
"With the current crisis, I feel insecure because I don't know what will happen tomorrow," she said.
"Women are still viewed as second-class citizens in Congo, and those who get involved in politics face constant harassment."
As Ley Uwera's social media activity becomes more prominent, she admitted that she is concerned for her safety.
"I'm scared sometimes, but I have to keep going," she explained. "If [activists] give up, we are leaving room for North Kivu to take a negative step back."
While it may seem risky, Passy Mubalama also hopes her blog will attract the government's attention.
"Blogs are less censored [than other DRC media], so I can write my opinion. I hope the authorities read it so they do something to help women in North Kivu," she said.
Experts say young women like Binja, Uwera, and Mubalama are integral to ensuring peace and stability.
"Unfortunately, women don't play as big a role in the peacebuilding process as they should," said Severine Autesserre, an associate professor of political science at Columbia University and an expert on the peace process in the region. "Women are still viewed as second-class citizens in Congo, and those who get involved in politics face constant harassment."
Female voices are often sidelined in negotiations with armed groups, despite women being disproportionately impacted during the conflict. According to experts, the civil war magnified gender inequalities and destroyed important social networks, rendering women more vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation.
"Without the participation of civil society and an analysis of the root causes of persistent insecurity, such processes will continue to fail to take into account the link between gender inequality and conflict," said Solange Lwashiga, a spokesperson for Nothing without Women, a Congolese women's campaign group.
Back at the summit in Goma, Binja chatted with the participants during the lunch break, encouraging them to continue their activism. She believes women in her province share a common goal.
"I think every woman in North Kivu just wants to live in peace, to be able to pursue her dreams," she said.
Reporting for this article was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation.
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