Meet Lulu Mitshabu—inspired to fight for women’s rights

In 1990, a pregnant Lulu Mitshabu walked 120 km with her two young daughters and was shot at as she escaped the dictatorship of Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

As a young human rights worker, Lulu had been singled out by the police and was forced to flee within minutes after her husband was suddenly arrested for his work in the same field.

Lulu sold her few possessions—including her children’s shoes—to find enough money to reach the refugee camp in neighbouring Zambia, where she was welcomed by other women who gave her vital information, helped her build a tent and supported her through those first frightening, vulnerable days.

“To see this kind of solidarity and love among the women in this camp was unbelievable. I made myself a promise to God right then, that if I got out of there, I would spend the rest of my life helping other women like myself.”

Three decades later, Lulu is living in Canberra with her husband and two of her six daughters and working as the Africa Program Coordinator for international aid organisation Caritas Australia—a role she has held for 20 years.

She describes the DRC as the “worst place in the entire world to be a woman”. It’s estimated that more than one million women and girls have been sexually assaulted over the last 20 years. Perpetrators mostly escape justice which reinforces a culture of violence against women, and there is limited medical and emotional support for survivors of sexual assault.

On a day-to-day basis, Lulu ensures the Caritas programs on the ground in the DRC are being rolled out efficiently. One of the programs involves helping ex-combatants transition from military to civilian life, with a focus on establishing sustainable livelihoods. Some people have been trained in sustainable agriculture while others are supported to set up small businesses.

“I’m so proud of the changes that have happened on the ground in the communities there.

“Before it was entirely needs based – people were waiting for us to give to them but now we are in partnership with them, and everyone is accountable. To me, this is showing a sense of pride in the community and a realisation that everyone has something to offer.”

Lulu estimates she has helped 5000 women in the DRC through her work, and lives with the constant hope that positive, empowering change in more women’s lives will continue.

“In the DRC girls don’t have access to education, they often have arranged marriages from a young age, and some of them don’t even understand that the perpetration committed against them is wrong because it’s so ingrained in their culture.”

Pre-pandemic, Lulu would travel to the DRC twice a year and hopes to get back there again soon. She believes that at a local level, everyone can help make a difference to the lives of women in places like the DRC.

“I would say to people wanting to donate to look for an organisation you can trust, where you know the money is going directly to the communities to empower them. The other thing you can do is to inform yourself about what is happening in the countries like the DRC.”

Lulu has lived in Canberra since 2012 and regularly reminds her daughters what a “breeze” their lives are.

“I feel so blessed that they live in a country where they are free, that anything they want to achieve is possible and I am so grateful they can reach their full potential. So I always encourage them to help whenever possible, to volunteer to help those not so fortunate.”

It is the “small town” feel of Canberra, along with the strong sense of community spirit and solidarity in her parish of Gunghalin that Lulu loves most about where she lives.

“People here are open, genuine and so willing to get involved. They just look after each other.”

Caritas Australia is one of the nation’s largest international aid and development charities. The organisation works with local communities in Australia and overseas, listening to concerns, assessing needs and working with partners on locally-led development programs ​in 18 countries around the world.

This article was first published in HerCanberra.

Lulu Mitshabu is Caritas Australia's Africa Program Coordinator for the Democratic Republic of Congo.