The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has become infamous in recent years as the “rape capital of the world,” known for its alarmingly high rates of sexual and gender-based violence (GBV) in its eastern region. I know it for the Congolese women and men with whom I work every day, guided by the hope that social and behavior change communication methodologies can contribute to the reduction of GBV in this conflict-affected country.
Torn by perpetual insecurity from warring armed groups, DRC is marked by high poverty and corruption. Women have a very low status in society, with stark gender inequalities especially evident in rural areas. State mechanisms are weak throughout the country, making justice for victims of violence elusive. With local policemen easily corruptible, DRC’s 2006 Sexual Violence Law rarely gets enforced at the community level. Perpetrators of violence walk free within days—if ever caught in the first place. Few courts exist, forcing people to travel for days to reach them, incurring expenses they cannot afford. As a result, survivors of GBV and their families, at best, often accept out-of-court settlements.
International Medical Corps has worked in DRC since 1999, with women’s health a high priority of our interventions. Our local staff faces many difficulties due to the near-complete lack of infrastructure in a country the size of Western Europe. Many of the locations in which we operate can only be reached by foot, sometimes after walking for three days, while armed groups constantly threaten our security. Yet we stay in this humanitarian disaster zone, motivated by our aim to better the lives of women, girls and other vulnerable people in DRC.
Beyond providing clinical, psychosocial, socio-economic and legal support to survivors of GBV, we emphasize prevention through behavior change. Our Behavior Change Communication (BCC) program takes a holistic approach to GBV by considering the consequences of GBV not only for survivors, but also for families and communities as a whole, while also aiming to prevent future acts of violence. In partnership with Search for Common Ground and Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, the BCC program seeks to change societal, community and individual attitudes and behaviors around gender and violence through popular music, community theater, youth events, radio shows, public service announcements, and local community organizations. We also train and engage health service providers, teachers, youth workers, community and religious leaders, and law enforcement officials in the prevention of GBV and compassionate support of survivors.
No doubt, our challenges in this endeavor are enormous—greater, I believe, than those posed by other health behaviors. Creating the environment that enables the changes we want to see with regard to GBV will not come easy. As an on-the-ground NGO committed to local self-reliance, International Medical Corps often works at the community level. But much of the changes that need to be made to address GBV must happen at a macro level, as many national laws still discriminate against women and corruption hinders the few provisions that protect women. DRC needs to enforce its Sexual Violence Law, while fostering greater gender equality through measures like eliminating education costs so that parents do not have to choose between sending their boys or girls to school.
In addition, although the international community tends to focus on sexual violence perpetrated by armed groups, a more comprehensive picture requires looking at the gender side of violence—not just the sexual side. Armed groups, conflict and poverty contribute to GBV’s extreme prevalence in the DRC, but the perpetuation of GBV originates with the low status of women, overarching gender inequalities and limited concepts of human rights in Congolese society.
Nonetheless, there is reason for optimism, and reporting of GBV in DRC needs to include these successes as well. Some perpetrators do end up in prison, and many individuals and communities do make changes. I am encouraged by the positive way that communities—including women, men, local leaders, the police, the military, teachers and other authorities—respond to our work. This does not guarantee behavior change, but it represents a first step. We have heard testimonials from men who have started including women in household decisions; women claiming that there is less violence, particularly domestic violence, in their households; and parents taking a more active role in childcare.
In other cases, more subtle changes demonstrate a potential shift toward action. For example, I have spoken to many women who previously believed that being beaten by their husbands meant they were good wives, but now they realize that some of what they endure is against the law and a violation of their human rights. Profound changes will take time, but empowering women and improving their position in society will reduce violence in families and communities in DRC, positively impacting the well-being of this fragile nation and the world overall.