Assistance Denied: Aid and LGBTI Rights in the Congo

One day on the shores of Lake Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Micheline went to jail. The arrest probably did not come as a surprise to her. Working as a sex worker, run-ins with the police may have been a common occurrence for Micheline. But when she reached the prison on that particular day, things took an ugly turn.

Micheline was raped daily during her incarceration. When I spoke to her friends during a recent visit to the DRC, they told me she eventually developed an infection so severe that the police released her. Micheline’s friends brought her to a nearby hospital and asked the medical staff for help. 

The doctors at the hospital had treated scores of cases like Micheline’s. And thanks in part to financial support from foreign governments, they had provided that care at no cost to women who needed it. But according to witnesses, the hospital staff refused to give Micheline the same standard of care because, biologically, she wasn’t a woman. When the doctors discovered that Micheline was transgender, they demanded that her friends pay $500 for the treatment that could save her life. Her friends couldn’t pay, and Micheline died.

When one thinks about rape in the eastern DRC, a particularly insidious tactic usually comes to mind: the use of rape as a weapon of war. It is a tactic that has killed many and left countless survivors deeply wounded – not just physically, but also socially, economically, and psychologically. Yet as RI pointed out in a recent report, incidents of sexual and gender-based violence in the DRC “are not relegated exclusively to conflict zones, but in fact, occur throughout the country.” Indeed, data from the last two years show that the vast majority of perpetrators are not members of the military or rebel groups, but civilians. 

In the vast majority of cases, it is women and girls who are targeted. But lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) Congolese are also extremely vulnerable to abuse – abuse that is fueled by a history of discrimination, disempowerment, and stigma. According to a recent study commissioned by the Swedish government, such individuals “are reportedly often rejected by their family, assaulted, raped, and threatened.” 

Few Congolese civil society groups are dedicated to serving and protecting LGBTI people, and those that are have difficulty working openly. RI met representatives of one such organization, which had to relocate its office three times due to repeated harassment by soldiers and police. They receive little support for their work from foreign donors, and they often must send their beneficiaries across the border to Burundi, where they have a better chance of getting assistance. 

These courageous activists shouldn’t have to stand alone in protecting LGBTI Congolese from gender-based violence, or in assisting survivors. International aid agencies and donor governments must also be at the forefront – as should the UN. But according to officials RI met on the ground, that’s not happening. Even some countries that are supportive of LGBTI rights globally do not see it as a priority in the DRC, with one Western diplomat telling RI, “We have to make choices about which issues to address in the DRC, and this has not been one of them.”

Few Congolese civil society groups are dedicated to serving and protecting LGBTI people, and those that are have difficulty working openly.

It is true that there are many difficult issues to tackle in the DRC. But at the very least, foreign governments and the UN should make sure that the aid they send to the DRC doesn’t perpetuate discrimination and abuse. There are no laws in the DRC that protect LGBTI people from discrimination, and in some cases discrimination is the default. “Here, we cannot access so many things,” one activist told me. “Even if we have a medical problem, the doctors blame us for our injuries. They say, ‘You’re a homosexual. We won’t touch you.’” It’s therefore up to donors to ensure the organizations they fund treat everyone equally. They should push their partners on the ground to follow international guidelines on the protection of LGBTI people (such as those issued by the UN Refugee Agency), and they should consult with LGBTI civil society groups to better understand their needs and concerns.

Toward the end of my trip to DRC, I met Désiré in what I assumed was one of the country’s few gay bars. Over grilled fish and french fries, she told me of her lifelong struggle as an intersex person: the abuses she faced and the services she was denied. Then she told me the story of her birth in a small village, and how the white doctor who delivered her was surprised to find that the newborn was neither a boy nor a girl, biologically speaking. The doctor showed Désiré’s mother a pill, and said that he could end the baby’s life then and there if she wished. But after holding the baby in her arms, her mother replied, “No. This is my beautiful child.” All humanitarians should strive to be so compassionate, and to serve every person in need no matter who they are or whom they love.