After decades of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a culture of violence has emerged where the absence of state provisions for justice and security have led many people to take the law into their own hands. Despite huge resources from the international community, the reform of the justice system has failed and has not addressed the inaccessibility and high cost of state courts for the majority of people. Women, in particular, remain marginalised and have little recourse to justice in traditional patriarchal systems.
Foundation Chirezi, (FOCHI), which means “caregiver” in several Congolese dialects, is a a civil society organisation based in South Kivu that aims to build lasting peace and to improve the living conditions of the Congolese people. Recognising that the local populace’s lack of access to the state justice system and the erosion of traditional conflict resolution mechanisms are sources of frustration which lead to tensions and grievances between communities, FOCHI uses a grassroots approach to solve disputes and strengthen the ability of communities to respond to conflicts in a non-violent manner.
To that end, FOCHI restored the system of ‘Barazas,’ semi-formal traditional community groups whose members mediate and settle disputes, make community decisions and manage community development projects, including agriculture and construction. The communities that are actively taking part in the project currently include an all-female Baraza which puts women’s concerns for their community at the fore. The management and leadership of all activities sits under the umbrella of the Baraza, including a Peace Court, which is a local, traditional mediation mechanism revived by this project.
FOCHI trains both local leaders and elected female and male volunteers in human rights, tolerance, conflict transformation and conflict resolution techniques so that they can jointly work in the Peace Courts to render fair judgement. The elected panel is totally representative of the community it serves and so is widely accepted and trusted, both for mixed courts and women-only courts, the benefit of the latter being that gender-sensitive issues can be dealt with and women’s voices are heard.
The combination of mixed gender and all-female courts have had unexpected successes, encouraging behavioural change of men towards women, enhancing youth engagement and empowering women. These Peace Courts became a platform for community mobilisation, dialogue and collaboration and turned out to be one of the most efficient mechanisms to foster resilience and strengthen community cohesion. So far, 38 villages in Ruzizi Plain, Uvira, Walungu and Fizi have established Peace Courts to solve disputes, including ethnic conflicts, marital problems and private matters.
FOCHI have been a partner of Peace Direct since 2010.