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DRC: “Women and girls’ bodies are not battlegrounds”

13 May 2019


Together with the UN and other partners, OCHA is co-hosting an international pledging conference to strengthen efforts to combat gender-based violence including sexual violence in humanitarian crises. Hosted by Norway, the conference also aims to raise much needed funding to ensure that humanitarian partners are equipped to provide the necessary protection and support to survivors, as well as to address the root causes. The conference will take place in Oslo on 23-24 May.

Divine* has vivid memories of when she was raped. "Three men appeared from nowhere. And they raped me in turn. I suppose I should be happy to be alive. But my life changed completely. What now?" Photo: OCHA/Tommaso Ripani

Divine’s story is one of pain, trauma and fear. But it’s also a story of hope and incredible strength. Divine is 72. She can’t remember the exact year when she had to flee Bukombo, a small village in the Masisi Territory, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). But she does remember every moment of the day she was raped in the woods.

“I was walking through the forest. I was there to collect wood to be sold as charcoal in Mugunga market. That used to be the only way for me to provide a living for my five grandchildren and me. I was already on my way back when, suddenly, three men appeared from nowhere. And they raped me in turn. I suppose I should be happy to be alive. But my life changed completely. What now? I keep thinking of my grandchildren, they need me, I have to get through this for them and for my family.”

Supporting survivors with psycho-social, medical and legal services as well as livelihood opportunities is critical to ensure survivors like Divine heal from the pain and trauma. This is what organisations like Pleaders of Children and Elderly People at Risk (PEPA), a Congolese NGO active in North Kivu in promoting the rights of older people, do for women like Divine. As part of their work in Mugunga, PEPA works on socioeconomic reinsertion projects for the elderly. This includes much-needed psychological, medical and legal assistance to the elderly living in Mugunga. PEPA’s project has changed Divine’s life. She received the medical and psychological support she needed to be able to cope with the scars and the trauma.

Women take part in PEPA's socioeconomic reinsertion project for elderly people in DRC. Photo: OCHA/Tommaso Ripani

“Women and girls’ bodies are not battlegrounds. And rape as a weapon of war is a heinous, unacceptable crime. In DRC, violence against women has become widespread, and while humanitarian partners continue to work tirelessly to bring relief to survivors, we must ensure that adequate funding is received to sustain protection activities. More must be also done to bring those guilty of such unspeakable acts to justice, and to identify and address gender inequalities and other forms of exclusion and discriminations that too often are the root causes of gender-based violence.”
- UN Deputy Humanitarian Chief Ursula Mueller

Of the 12.8 million people in need of assistance in DRC, 640,000 are elderly. Older women in particular struggle to make a living and to support their families and not to be a burden on them. But to do so, they must travel long, unsafe distances to get food and water. This exposes them to higher risk of violence. They often have chronic diseases they cannot afford to take care of. And when they become victims of sexual violence, too often they have nowhere to go for medical support and recovery. And with age, their ability to survive trauma, fear and physical violence drastically decreases.

In conflict-battered DRC, gender-based violence, including sexual violence, has reached epidemic levels. In 2018 alone, close to 26,800 cases were registered, but many more have not been reported – for fear of retaliation, because of the limited monitoring and reporting systems in place which don’t cover all affected areas in the country, and because of security and access constraints.

Humanitarian partners have been advocating for more funds to be able to provide survivors with post-rape kits within 72 hours, and safe spaces where they can avail from dedicated psychosocial support. The 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan requires $1.7 billion to reach 9 million people. Of those, a stunning 5.7 million people require protection services. To date, the appeal remains only 12 per cent funded.