Congolese Women: What Happened to the Promise to Protect?

It is impossible to talk about the Democratic Republic of the Congo without talking about sexual violence. The widespread acknowledgement of gross levels of conflict-related sexual violence in the DRC spurred the international community to act in an unprecedented manner to protect women from these atrocities.

In particular, there were two major investments by the United States and the United Nations, one with an unprecedented level of programmatic funding, the other with a novel coordination strategy.

While the U.S. and UN interventions yielded important results, both were built without the benefit of a strong evidence base to properly understand the context of gender-based violence (GBV) in the DRC. As a result, some policymakers in the U.S. and at the UN now believe that because women and girls continue to experience widespread GBV, these interventions have failed. In turn, some U.S. government policymakers feel that intervention is futile, and that the DRC is a bucket with the bottom removed, which no amount of funding can fix. Now, vital resources (both human and financial) are being transferred towards other competing priorities around the globe. The U.S. government is also considering new approaches that could jeopardize GBV survivors’ access to lifesaving care.

At the same time, the UN’s investment, a new approach to coordination called the Comprehensive Strategy to Combat Sexual Violence, created a five-pillared system co-led by the UN and the DRC government. After five years, this coordination strategy has largely failed to avoid duplication or generate momentum on addressing sexual violence, instead bogging humanitarian actors down with bureaucracy.


Over the last decade, conflict-related sexual violence has been increasingly recognized by the international community as a war crime. This is unquestionably the case in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Numerous years of ongoing conflict in eastern DRC has taken a tremendous toll on women. Margot Wallstrom, the United Nations’ former Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, famously referred to the DRC as the “rape capital of the world” and in 2007, the then-UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, called rape in the DRC “the worst in the world.” 

In 2009, two major investments were made by the U.S. government and the UN. The U.S., which had donated significant funds towards women’s protection in the DRC since 2002, invested approximately $47.5 million additional funding for programming to address violence against women and girls in eastern DRC. These programs provided holistic, multi-sectoral support1 for women and girls in remote areas hard hit by conflict. Also in 2009, the UN — in line with successive Security Council resolutions — created the Comprehensive Strategy to Combat Sexual Violence, an innovative new structure that created a common framework and platform for action for all those involved in combating sexual violence in the DRC. The resulting strategy was accepted by the DRC government as the National Strategy to Combat Sexual Violence and established a five-pillared system for coordinating sexual violence prevention and response activities. 

Five years since the launch of these two investments, significant progress has been made towards protecting women and girls in eastern DRC. As a result of the U.S. funding, for example, tens of thousands of women have received lifesaving care and support that has allowed them to reintegrate into their families and communities. The UN’s Comprehensive Strategy has made sexual violence an issue that all UN agencies and peacekeeping units consider and integrate into their work. At the same time, there has been backlash (as seen in media reports and academic research3) against the international attention focused on sexual violence, which has led to the perception amongst some observers that the attention on sexual violence in the DRC is overblown. In addition, some critics say that these investments have failed because, five years later, sexual violence in eastern DRC continues to occur. The DRC also suffers from the extremely poor perception on the part of some policymakers both inside and outside of the DRC that the conflict is intractable and thus misery for the population is unsolvable. 

In 2015, the support that Congolese women have relied on as a resultof the U.S. and UN investments will change dramatically. The U.S. is significantly scaling back its programming to respond to GBV and is adopting a new strategy focused on integration rather than stand-alone programs. There is also widespread recognition in the DRC that the National Strategy is not effectively coordinating GBV programs and that it needs reform. 

Our Recommendations

  • Donor governments, the United Nations, and humanitarian organizations should take on more gender-based violence (GBV) initiatives, rather than focusing on conflict-related sexual violence.
  • The U.S. Agency for International Development should reinstate funding for stand-alone, multi-sectoral GBV services that include medical, psychosocial, judicial, socio-economic, and prevention activities. This funding must support multi-year program cycles and include community-based organizations in implementation to build sustainability.
  • Donors should increase funding for programs that seek to address the root causes of GBV by empowering women and engaging men.
  • Donor governments, in particular the U.S., and the UN should pressure the DRC government to seriously address and prioritize GBV, particularly in the provision of sustainable health and social services to GBV survivors, as well as on issues of impunity and security sector reform.
  • The DRC Minister of Gender, in collaboration with UN Women, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN Refugee Agency, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should overhaul the current National Strategy to Combat Gender-Based Violence and dissolve the pillared structure for coordination.
  • In the DRC provinces where humanitarian clusters are active, UNICEF and UNFPA should activate GBV sub-clusters.
  • The DRC Ministry of Gender, Family Affairs, and Children should develop a new national strategy to combat GBV that coordinates civil society, humanitarian organizations, and the UN.

Marcy Hersh assessed the humanitarian response to women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo in October 2014.