USA Today: ‘I Have Been Raped Twice in Just the Last Year’: Pay Attention to the Fighting in Congo

This piece was originally published by USA Today.

An epidemic of rape has overwhelmed the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the world isn’t paying attention. Conflict in the eastern part of the African nation has escalated dramatically in the past two years. A history of regional and ethnic tensions, along with a weak central government and disputes over ownership of land and resources, has led to a proliferation of rebel groups – approximately 120 armed groups now – that have fought government forces for more than a decade. The violence has been especially intense since the end of 2021, and attacks against women and girls have risen exponentially. 

Gender-based violence requires robust international response

At least 7 million people have fled their homes in Congo, rivaling Sudan as the largest displacement crisis in the world. In the past few months, the main rebel group, M23, has launched several major offensives toward Goma, the capital of the east and the region’s humanitarian hub. M23 soldiers now surround the city of more than 2 million people, cutting them off from critical roads and food.

Peace has been elusive. Just this month, according to the BBC, a missile killed three Tanzanian troops assisting government forces in Sake, the last town before Goma.

Internally displaced people are living in makeshift camps with little food, fuel, clean water or shelter, and more are arriving in Goma every day. Funding and coordination of humanitarian aid are nowhere near enough. The rate of gender-based violence is skyrocketing. The escalating conflict, the rapid displacement of Congolese, and the inadequate humanitarian assistance have, altogether, proved dangerous for women and girls. Between 2021 and 2022, reports of sexual violence in North Kivu province surged by 91%, and the number of cases continues to rise. Survivors reported 10,400 such cases this past January alone.

This prevalence of gender-based violence requires a robust international response. Yet in recent years, the world’s attention has been diverted – as Russia invaded Ukraine, Sudan collapsed into civil war and Israel commenced a massive military operation in Gaza. These crises and others have pushed Congo from most global watchlists and from the public’s awareness. News coverage of the conflict – and world attention – has been sparse.

Limited global attention on Congo means limited funding to support the humanitarian response. Last year, foreign governments donated only about 40% (two-thirds of this from Washington) of what the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says was required to provide essential aid to internally displaced people in eastern Congo.

This year, donors have covered just 16% of the U.N. request. Of this, humanitarian responders spend only 0.4% of the total, specifically on protecting women and girls from sexual violence. Food is in short supply. The World Food Program says it needs at least $425 million in additional funds for the next six months.

‘It doesn’t seem to matter to men with the guns’

A recent visit to these camps by Refugees International found women whom men had brutally attacked throughout North Kivu province, especially near Virunga National Park. Because aid to these camps is meager and unreliable, many women and girls walk out into the woods for as many as five or six hours to collect firewood, which they sell to buy food and other essentials.

It is on these treks that so many of them are sexually assaulted, especially by armed M23 soldiers. Even traveling in groups isn’t safe, as their armed assailants are also in groups. 

A young mother of three children told Refugees International, “I travel alone, I am attacked. I travel with other women, I am attacked. It doesn’t seem to matter to men with the guns. I have been raped twice in just the last year.”

If she is to have a real shot at a better future, several things need to happen:

  • The general public needs to wake up and pay attention to the intensifying conflict in Congo, especially the exceptional levels and brutality of sexual violence.
  • Humanitarian organizations need to prioritize providing food and fuel to displaced women and girls so they do not have to leave the camps.
  • Perhaps most important, M23 (and the Rwandan government that supports the militia) and the Congolese government must agree to take their disagreements to the negotiating table.

Grievances and control over resources in eastern Congo cannot be resolved by violence. It has never worked before and it will not work now. Without a path toward peace, this familiar story about rape in Congo will remain unchanged or get worse.  

Featured photo: A Congolese mother of seven children who fled Masisi and now lives in Kanyaruchinya camp for internally displaced people near Goma, DRC. Photo by Refugees International.