Stop the PR Campaign, Start Making a Difference

When I was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) last October, every meeting that I held with Congolese government officials sounded surprisingly similar. They were all engaged in a battle to change the long-held image of the country as “the rape capital of the world.” Government officials explained to me that now that the threat of the M23 rebel group was behind them, the country is at relative peace and women can start to experience the dividends of that peace. Conflict-related sexual violence is no longer a problem in the DRC, or so they claimed. Not only is that statement incorrect, but engaging in this type of PR campaign is the last thing that the DRC needs right now.

Wednesday’s Guardian story on the newly appointed Special Representative on Sexual Violence, Jeanine Mabunda’s quest to end the country’s label as the “rape capital of the world” is the latest example of the government trying to shed this unfortunate moniker, prove that not all Congolese men are rapists, and that the country is not indifferent to women’s plight. While it is understandable that the government wants to improve the way it is perceived, Mabunda would be better served in seeking out concrete solutions for the survivors of sexual violence, whom she represents.

In the last ten years, the DRC has gained worldwide notoriety because of the terribly atrocities that have happened to women there. There have been films about it, renowned journalists have written about it, and even American talk shows have covered the pain and suffering that regularly befalls Congolese women. As a result of this global outrage, policymakers were forced to act. Five years ago, the U.S. government via the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) made an unprecedented investment in the DRC to try to help address the violence that Congolese women suffered. With that funding, USAID’s partner organizations set up large-scale, holistic programs throughout the war-torn eastern DRC to respond to sexual violence. 

Refugees International recently released an in-depth report analyzing these programs and what they achieved for the women and communities that they served. The results are incredibly positive. In the last five years, because of the U.S.-funded programs, more than 24,000 women who experienced sexual violence received some form of medical care that prevented the transmission of HIV or other STIs. 40,000 women were able to receive counseling and psychosocial support, an invaluable element of the healing process. It’s is also crucial to highlight that 1,500 Congolese clinicians were trained to provide these services to women, which is essential so that that expertise remains in-country.

But just as these successes have been achieved, the U.S. government made severe cuts to its funding in the DRC and the large-scale GBV programs that garnered such impressive results are now grinding to a halt. Today, because of those cuts, clinics are closing all over eastern Congo and women are forced to travel up to eight days on foot to access emergency medical care after being raped. This is not only arduous, but misses the crucial 72-hour window within which doctors can prevent the transmission of HIV. 

Women’s vulnerability to multiple forms of gender-based violence (GBV) is increasing, while the availability of lifesaving services is on the decline.

This devastating cut is one of many that are happening across the DRC today. Because of the numerous other large-scale humanitarian crises happening on the continent and around the world, resources are stretched extremely thin. The prolonged conflict in the DRC is no longer grabbing headlines and is not a top priority for donors. At the end of last year, the overall UN humanitarian funding appeal was only 45 percent funded, which means that every sector, including food, water, and shelter, is struggling to offer the minimum lifesaving aid to the people. 

Things are getting desperate for women in the DRC. During my last trip, I saw women take on dangerous coping mechanisms, like collecting firewood in the bush and survival sex to generate income and provide for their families. Women’s vulnerability to multiple forms of gender-based violence (GBV) is increasing, while the availability of lifesaving services is on the decline.

In the face of this terrible situation, Congolese government officials should be reaching out to their partners in the international community to find the funding support that will fill the gap of GBV-specific services left by USAID. They should also be working steadfastly to improve their own health care systems and structures to be able to one day offer this care to their citizens on their own, without international support. 

But instead, Congolese government officials, including Mabunda, are focused on telling a different, more optimistic story about the DRC. This week, the Special Representative explained “Congo is not just about war and rape and misery. Congo also has a track record in terms of economic results.” For the long-suffering women I met in eastern DRC, they eagerly await the day when Congo is not about war and rape and misery. That change must start with the Congolese government. 

Photo: Women and children in displaced persons camp in North Kivu, DR Congo