We had to increase the number of human resources in the emergency, but the men were more available than the women. But those women who made themselves available did a remarkable job.
On Saturday May 22, 2021 at 6 pm the night sky suddenly darkened as Congo’s Mount Nyiragongo erupted, spewing molten lava into the city and across the city’s highways, spreading panic among Goma’s 2 million residents.
The last time this infamously unstable volcano erupted in 2002, it left hundreds dead and more than 100.000 homeless.
Memories of this harrowing disaster led to chaotic scenes as waves of crowds pushed into the streets, fleeing the mayhem in various directions. The wealthy piled their families into cars. Most, including the elderly, women, and children walked, carrying mattresses and whatever valuables they could carry on their back, making their way to Bukavu, in South Kivu province, towards the neighboring town of Ginsenyi in Rwanda or to Sake village.
By the evening the lava had finally stopped at Buhene, just short of northern Goma. But the devastation didn’t stop there. The city was hit by a series of high magnitude earthquakes following the eruption. Days later, provincial authorities warned of potential explosions resulting from the volcano’s magma meeting methane gas escaping from Lake Kivu, and advised the population to evacuate immediately. The human flow out of Goma continued as people desperately sought to flee the calamitous situation and struggled to find food and water for their families. Many of the 32 people who died in the wake of the eruption lost their lives in the ensuing evacuation.
The disaster has exacerbated the instability stemming from two decades of conflict and violence in DRC, particularly in the North Kivu region, where Goma is located. More than two million people have been displaced due to this violence alone. An additional 450.000 people have fled Goma in the days following the eruption, seeking shelter, food, water, and sanitation.
Gender and Disaster Management
Like everywhere, women in Goma bear the brunt of the constellation of instability stemming from conflict and natural disasters. But women are more than just victims. Women play essential roles in relief and disaster management efforts. Female community members are often best positioned to identify the needs of the elderly, children and other vulnerable members of the community. Yet cultural restrictions and patriarchal biases in DRC prevent women from playing these essential roles.
In Sake, where over 150.000 people from Goma have taken refuge, disaster sites have been established in schools, churches and private lands. Women are largely absent from leadership roles in these sites. Men resist being managed by women and women themselves opt out of such roles because they have internalized assumptions that women should solely focus on taking care of their own families.
“Women were not always available,” explained Dr. Lucien Ngaba, the Chief medical Officer at Kirotsche Health Zone. “We had to increase the number of human resources in the emergency, but the men were more available than the women. But those women who made themselves available did a remarkable job.”
Madame Annie Masandi was one of the few women managers working with displaced people. She is the president of a mosque site, in charge of over 1000 people, including nearly 400 women and over 500 children. Madame Annie deplored the way that women removed themselves from leadership roles and men dismissed outright women’s capacity to be leaders.
“Some men say that women can’t lead us,” she exclaimed indignantly. Women are also excluded from security committees because men think they lack the “strength” to defend the site.
There has been some progress in humanitarian organizations consulting women in food and hygienic kit distributions.
“Before the distributions, especially for menstrual hygiene and sexual needs of women and girls, humanitarian organizations consulted us,” said Annie, a woman in the area. “There is a great sign of consideration and I assure you that all my requests for people on the site have been answered for 80%.”
But more needs to be done to empower women and local community leaders in the provision of aid. According to Dr. Lucien, decisions by certain humanitarian organizations to provide health kits directly to communities rather than working with health zone managers have weakened their ability to monitor the distribution of aid properly. At times, these organizations lack sufficient knowledge of the contexts and communities, leading to local actors taking advantage of the aid distribution and leaving displaced people forgotten or at a disadvantage. Local residents of Sake reportedly benefited from aid that was meant to go to the displaced Goma population.
Madam Sifa, a disaster victim and mother of nine said, “more than 80% of the aid went to the local community. We know that Sake has many mai-mai, but if we report them, our lives can be in danger.”
Engendering Inclusive Disaster Management and Conflict Resolution
From the moment the provincial government assessed it was safe to return home, the residents of Goma have slowly been trickling back into the city. Many return to nothing. Their homes have been destroyed and they have little left. The government is attempting to set up sites to accommodate the returning population, but locals are concerned that these efforts will be insufficient and those that are left behind may resort to violence, causing a flare up of latent conflict dynamics.
“The conflict triggers will always be there,” says Ms. Annie, “If measures are not adapted, if everyone’s participation is not taken into account, we will have a hard time getting out of it. We need a focal point trained in conflict management permanently in the sites because without experience, such conflicts are likely to escalate.”
Community members, especially women, need to be included in aid distribution to prevent exacerbating conflict dynamics. Strengthening their skills through training, and combining that with their inherent understanding of the context and communities will help to prevent violence and encourage equitable access to aid. More attention must be given to generating opportunities for women to be involved in conflict resolution and disaster management. Without their real involvement, they risk becoming double victims – of patriarchal systems and natural disasters.
 Name changed for security reasons
 Armed group