Two women of the Mbuti People in Mabukulu village in the DRC, showing the chickens they have received. (Image Credit: Garry Walsh /Trócaire | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0 DEED)

The Continuous Struggle of the Women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

In June 1960, Congo declared its independence after decades of colonial rule, and Patrice Lumumba became prime minister after the first elections. Independence did not, however, bring an end to the conflict-prone nature of the country. In 1996, the First Congo War broke out and shortly after its end, in 1998, the Second Congo War began. The presence of valuable natural minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) did not make peace efforts in the country easier. In 2018 Félix Tshisekedi was announced the winner of the DRC’s elections, marking the first peaceful transfer of power in the DRC’s history. His inauguration, however, came along with many crises to deal with—including outbreaks of Ebola and continuing violence in the eastern provinces of the DRC. 

For decades, the DRC has been a country ravaged by conflict. Not much has changed since Dag Hammarsköld’s time—the Secretary General for the UN who handled the Congo crisis in the late 1950s to the early 1960s. Today, the situation in the DRC has been described as one of the most complex humanitarian crises in the world. Over 70% of the country’s population lives in poverty, and continuous conflicts between non-state actors in the region have led to nearly six million people being internally displaced across the eastern provinces of the DRC. 

Rape victims who have been successfully reintegrated into their communities assemble in a peace hut in South Kivu in the DRC. (Image Credit: L. Werchick/USAID | Wikimedia Commons | US Public Domain)

One group that has disproportionately faced the consequences of the ongoing crises in the country are the women. They live with their hands tied in a country in which women’s rights never developed. In the decades of armed conflict, it is estimated that over one million women were raped. Resources for female victims of sexual violence such as healthcare, psychosocial support, security, and justice for survivors are highly limited. Some might say that sexual violence is a natural consequence of conflict and war, but the women in the Congo have disproportionately suffered. In a report published in 2002 by Human Rights Watch called “The War within the War”—focused specifically on sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls in Eastern Congo during the conflicts—one victim of rape at the hands of a soldier is quoted saying “my body has become sad. I have no happiness”. Few women have actually brought charges of rape against their attackers—partially because of the lack of an efficient legal system that will condemn the perpetrators, but also because of the social stigmatisation that follows rape. The woman who was quoted in the Human Rights Watch report was raped after her attackers killed her husband, and because of this she was chased away by her husband’s family. 

Rape is something many women in the Congo face every day, especially in the eastern provinces. Not only does this happen in the context of conflict, but 51% of Congolese women will experience intimate partner violence in their life. Survival sex has also become common in the DRC, where women rely on sex in order for their family to survive and to get resources such as food, shelter, or money. Another woman, Catherine, is quoted in the Human Rights Watch report saying “I do not dare to refuse men because I do not want to leave the children hungry”. She is a mother of eight. This has become the norm for many women in the Congo. 

Women from the Uvira Territory of South Kivu Province in the DRC began a life-changing journey of pursuing education. These women, though facing tough circumstances, exhibit remarkable solidity and an uncompromising determination to improve their knowledge and skills. (Image Credit: EdvinAlden.1995 | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

Women and girls in the DRC are not just victims of violence following conflict. Since before the conflicts began, women have been seen as subordinate to men by both custom and practice and a woman’s status is dependent on being married. Child marriage is therefore not uncommon, with 37% of women being married before their 18th birthday. Additionally, girls do not have the same access to education as boys—only 36.7% of women have at the very least a minimal secondary education. The rates of illiteracy are also higher amongst women than men. Even many of the women who have been lucky enough to be allowed an education do not have decent jobs. Today, women hold only 7.2% of positions at the highest level of decision-making on a national level.

There are many organisations that are fighting for women’s rights in the DRC, including Women for Women, UN Women Africa, and many more. In 2023, the 24 UN entities came together to urge immediate action to protect women and girls from sexual violence in the eastern DRC and called upon the DRC to take necessary measures to hold perpetrators accountable and thus reinforce access to justice for survivors of sexual violence. However, the reality that Congolese women wake up to every day remains brutal. There is a difficulty to access education and decent jobs, and women face many medical challenges linked to sex—mainly STDs. The fears that the Congolese women face are grave. Despite poverty and any other crises the DRC faces, the epidemic of violence against women and the unjust reality they live in must be equally addressed. 

By Roya Juhlin-Dannfelt

April 16, 2024

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