In a large auto body shop off a dusty alley in the Democratic Republic of Congo, two teenage girls climb behind a stripped-down truck to take a break under a shady cluster of trees. A few moments before, 16-year-old Kubuya Mushingano, clad in a blue mechanic’s uniform, and 17-year-old Dorcas Lukonge, her hair wrapped in a scarf, were, respectively, wielding a circular saw and power drill.
Each day, these two young trainees saw, drill and weld—making doors and windows for cars at the auto yard, a dirt enclosure littered with scrap wood and metal.
In the eastern provincial capital of Goma, where perceptions of women are shaded by a regional nickname, “The Rape Capital of the World,” a group of girls handy with power tools are throwing a literal wrench into gender norms and stereotypes of victimhood.
“When we came here there were a lot of people discouraging us, saying it’s work for men,” says Mushingano. “But I feel it’s good work and I like it.”
Lukonge chimes in assertively: “When people discourage us we feel more encouraged to go on.”
And good work it is. In much of the DRC, roads are in a woeful state of disrepair, and in Goma, the conditions are especially dire. A patchwork of building shells and cratered streets, the city tells of a cyclical war, still smoldering. It’s never been given the chance to rebuild before the next blitz hits—whether a flood of molten lava or a ferocious insurgency.
Weaving through this are only a handful of properly paved thoroughfares. The rest are a bone-rattling maze of potholes littered with rocks spewed 12 years ago by nearby Mount Nyiragongo, one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes.
This state of disrepair provides good business for the city’s mechanics. Cars bumping over Goma’s streets need constant attention. A translator working with The Daily Beast said he brings his vehicle into the mechanic every two weeks to fix the suspension.
The girls say the auto body yard, otherwise filled with more than a dozen men of all ages, is a welcoming environment. “When there is work to do we just do it, there is no discrimination, no saying, ‘You can’t do this,’” says Lukonge.
But auto work is not the typical path for Congolese women, who make up half the labor force, but are largely relegated to traditional avenues of employment as seamstresses, cooks, farm labor, or small vendors. In the DRC, women still need their husband’s permission to start a business or open a bank account.
As a mechanic, job prospects are more promising (Lukonge says she feared becoming just “another” tailor), but not everyone understands the draw of a career path typically filled by men, including the girls’ own families. “Some say, ‘You are just going to hunt for men,’” Lukonge says.
Mushingano agrees, “We know that’s not the case, we just come here for work.”
These girls, and others in the vocational programs, represent a more nuanced image of Congolese women than the portrait pervasive in media coverage. The DRC is ubiquitous in the top five slots of annual “The worst places in the world to a be a woman” lists; with a 2011 study finding 48 rapes occur each hour.
There’s no question many women in the DRC are victims of horrific sexual violence and their attackers often enjoy impunity. But there is a whole lot more to these women and their lives than victimhood.
Lukonge and Mushingano have been practicing their chosen trade at the garage for two months, after a year of training at a local organization called ETN (a mouthful of a French acronym: Equipe d’Education et d’Encadrement des Traumatisés de Nyiragongo). Since 2013, ETN, in partnership with CARE International, has trained 150 young people in its six-month programs, pulling street kids, young mothers, sexual violence survivors, and former child soldiers from Goma’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.
These novices have their pick of seven branches of training: from mechanics to tailoring, electrical work to “kitchen arts.” At the encouragement of the trainers, both Lukonge and Mushingano signed up for the mechanics class, the only two girls to do so.
“In class we noticed we had an advantage over boys,” Lukonge says. The trainer paid special attention to them, encouraging them to be the first to answer questions, and pushing them hard. “He knows women are likely ignored,” she says. “When we told him we were tired he said, ‘Don’t be tired.’”
Being a mechanic doesn’t get either of the girls out of chores. They both wake up at 5:00 a.m. to do housework for their families—sweeping, mopping, fetching water, doing dishes and the laundry—before starting work at 8:00.
When their fellowship at the auto body yard ends, ETN will give them a mechanic’s kit to start their own business or join a current one and become self-supporting.
A few minutes down the nearby main road and into another alley, another four young women, aged 18 to 23, tinker with engine parts on a table in a small workshop surrounded by cars. Their blue jumpsuits are stained with grease, and their hair is expertly wrapped in scarves to keep it out of their way. They’re used to people being skeptical of their mechanical abilities, but, “When they see we are able to do it they are astonished,” says the youngest, Wivine Mukongya.
“I just had dreamed of becoming a mechanic one day,” she says. A statement ring on her left hand features a fancy car. “I want to do it because I felt like this is work that will help me in the future.” She hopes to become a mechanic or a driver for an NGO, many of which, she says, prefer to hire women over men.
Goma’s economy relies heavily on the saturated presence of international humanitarian organizations, which have spent two decades battling the turmoil in the region. The United Nations peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, is the largest and best-funded in the world. Driving for the U.N. or one of the many aid organizations is a highly coveted position, and job fliers posted outside their compounds draw crowds daily.
In a classroom full of boys at ETN’s training compound, 19-year-old Jeane is one of only two girls. She was a victim of sexual violence, but she seems to feel strong and independent in her new role. She wears electric blue eyeliner highlighting the bottom of her eyebrows and says, flatly, as she stands beside a tire-less SUV propped up by lava rocks, “We are accepted.” And more than that, “We are lucky because we are the minority, and [we] are focused on more than the majority.”
Scribbling notes in the classroom next door is Justine, a shy 17-year-old orphan who is the only female in her class. When she talks about her work, she perks up quickly. “It’s I who have an advantage over boys,” she says. “When I finish I hope I will get a job and with the competition—if there are five boys I will be selected from among the boys—that will be an advantage.”
In Goma, a few pioneering women are stepping into blue jumpsuits, cranking the wheels and pouring the foundations for their city so it might not just withstand the next upheaval, but possibly prevent it.
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Nina Strochlic’s reporting from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.