On a recent visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Dr. Natalie Kanem, the head of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, bore witness to the horrific legacy of sexual violence in the country, which is undergoing one of the world’s longest-running humanitarian crises.
‘The men broke my body and shattered my soul’
“We waited for hours in the distribution point until they eventually told us to go home. Hungry and empty-handed, I walked with three other women and two little girls. It was dusk, and I heard the little girls scream.
“I turned around and, in the dim light, I saw men and boys coming towards us. They grabbed us and they were jeering when they distributed us among them, including the children. Five men took turns raping me and violating my body. My last thought before I lost consciousness, was how pure evil can exist in this world.”
This was the wrenching story from Larise*, an internally displaced person from Eastern Congo (in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC), during Dr. Kanem’s visit to Bukavu, earlier this week.
Larise handed the UNFPA chief a creased picture showing her battered body in the aftermath of the assault. “I was in the hospital for five months. The men broke my body into many pieces and shattered my soul.”
‘A perfect storm of humanitarian crises’
This horrific experience is all too common. With one of the world’s most protracted and complex humanitarian crises, the DRC has more than five million displaced people and communities that continue to be upended by armed conflict, violence, and insecurity.
“This is not just a perfect storm of humanitarian crises; it goes beyond that, as the magnitude is catastrophic”, said Dr. Kanem who, as lead official of the UN system-wide efforts to protect women and girls, came to listen to the voices and needs of survivors of sexual violence.
After listening to women’s stories, she shared their recommendations with a team dedicated to the protection of women and girls from sexual exploitation and abuse, and sexual harassment.
They discussed priorities, accountability and efforts to make zero tolerance a reality. Dr. Kanem also shared the recommendations with the UN country team and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General.
“We have to look into three priorities: bolstering our response; improving victims’ access to quality assistance and information; and strengthening our coordination and cohesion. Women and girls are caught in the middle, paying a heavy price with their rights, their bodies and their lives.”
DRC faces pressing humanitarian challenges, compounded by the impact of COVID-19, natural disasters, localized conflict and disease outbreaks. DRC is geographically the second largest country in the world, one of the most populous, and one of the richest in natural resources in Africa.
Despite its vast resources, 63 per cent of the population are living below the poverty line and food insecurity is taking its toll, especially on pregnant and lactating women and newborns.
More than 25 million people in DRC are projected to need humanitarian assistance this year. Of those, UNFPA aims to reach 5.7 million women and girls of reproductive age with lifesaving sexual and reproductive health services and supplies, prevention and response to gender-based violence and psychosocial support.
Against this backdrop, the UN and partners launched a humanitarian response plan that requires nearly $2 billion to provide life-saving assistance to the most vulnerable. UNFPA estimates that $67 million is required to provide reproductive healthcare and women’s protection services through the end of 2021.
Hoping for a brighter future
The country’s multiple challenges call for coherent and collaborative interventions to support affected communities before, during and after crises, says Dr. Kanem. “We are looking at humanitarian interventions that pave the way for the longer-term objectives of advancing human rights and gender equality, building social cohesion and sustaining peace”.
UNFPA/Luis TatoUNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem visits a ‘one-stop centre’ in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Strengthening the resilience of people, communities, and systems, and fostering fair and equitable access to essential services such as sexual and reproductive health care, she added, are crucial to successful efforts.
UNFPA works towards the achievement of three transformative results by 2030 – zero preventable maternal deaths, zero unmet needs for family planning, and zero gender-based violence and harmful practices, including child marriage and female genital mutilation.
Dr. Kanem declares that she is optimistic about the country’s commitment, and the continental vision, citing the African Union Peace & Security Council session, held in March.
*Name changed to protect the survivor’s identity