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date: 18 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

Since the turn of the 21st century, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) has frequently been portrayed in international media as “the worst place in the world to be a woman.” The moral and political economy of gender relations in the largest country of sub-Saharan Africa has nevertheless been shaped by a long history of women’s multiple experiences of agency and disempowerment and competition and solidarity, whose complexity cannot be captured through victimizing narratives. While political boundaries of DR Congo result from late-19th-century colonialism, the territories encompassed in the country have a rich longue durée history. In precolonial times, women’s status and access to resources and power varied greatly across different cultural and political formations. From the 16th century, the intensification of the slave and ivory trade, in the footsteps of European expansion, affected normative and effective patterns of gender relations. The creation of the Congo Free State (1885–1908), which marked the debut of Belgian colonialism in Central Africa, created a regime of forceful extraction of resources and labor that had a severe impact on women. The distinctive features of the Belgian Congo regime (1908–1960) also influenced the status and experiences of women. The central role of the Roman Catholic Church and the maternalist visions of Belgian authorities generated a specific lens through which Congolese women were targeted by colonial policies. Despite limited room for maneuvering, Congolese women never restricted themselves to the roles imposed on them, neither during the colonial nor the postcolonial period. During the Mobutu regime (1965–1997) and beyond, transgressions of gender norms, as well as strategies of emancipation, has generated specific—even if ambiguous—paths of mobilization.

Keywords: Congo, Congo Free State, Belgian Congo, Zaïre, women, gender, slavery, colonialism

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