Preventing Violence Against Women in the DRC: A Lesson in Aid Effectiveness

By Elizabeth Melampy

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was coined the “rape capital of the world” by UN Special Representative of Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallstrom after her 2010 visit. According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health, 48 women are raped per hour in the DRC. This statistic, as well as public outcry to news coverage of a 2012 mass rape in Minova, DRC, led to the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI).

As part of PSVI the UK organized a 2014 summit aimed at combatting sexual violence in conflict areas. Angelina Jolie, the special envoy for UNHRC and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague co-chaired the “Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.” Over 120 countries, more than 100 NGOs and other international partners, and nearly 900 experts from various fields attended the summit in London.

Possible Caption: Thousands of Congolese live near Goma, DRC, where rape rates are still high. Photo courtesy of Marie Cacace/Oxfam 2012

Thousands of Congolese live near Goma, DRC, where rape rates are still high. Photo courtesy of Marie Cacace/Oxfam 2012

According to the summit report, there were four major areas of focus: strengthening accountability, providing support for victims (especially children), integrating and promoting gender equality, and improving strategic international cooperation. These topics provided the framework for recommendations, which were general in nature due to the global focus of the summit. The summit ended with a vague Statement of Action.

Despite this high profile, international event, indicators measuring violence against women have worsened in the past year; the fragile state of DRC illustrates this lack of progress best. Jolie and Hague visited the DRC in 2013 as a part of the PSVI initiative, and the summit’s press releases and reports used the DRC as a touchstone for examples of unspeakable violence and lauded progress.  However, the DRC has continued to struggle with sexual violence. The American Bar Association in Goma, DRC said the number of prosecutions of rape dropped in the last year, and some investigations say the incidence of rape has increased.

These statistics have resulted in public outrage over the summit’s $8 million cost, especially since the UK only dedicated $1.5 million to the project’s global implementation in the last year. While there was no expectation that the PSVI would eradicate gender-based violence in the DRC entirely, it is worth exploring what isn’t working, and how to reform this type of aid. There are two main problems experts cite: Not including Congolese women in conversations and efforts, and not educating or disarming men.

Including local women is central to ensuring their empowerment and protection. Denying their participation in decisions or initiatives detracts from their role in their own livelihoods. Not a single Congolese woman was invited to the UK Summit, yet they were the intended beneficiaries of such high-level actions. Part of the reason they were not included may have been the global, as opposed to country-specific, focus of the conference.

However, the importance of including local women has long been acknowledged as crucial for female empowerment and protection. UN Security Council Resolution 1325, signed in 2000, promotes the empowerment of women in prevention of conflict and peace-building, and it also supports measures to protect women from gender-based violence in conflict. The UK has had various task forces to support UNSCR 1325 (2002 and 2003), and in its National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security highlights the importance of inclusion and participation. Amnesty International, a party at the UK Summit in 2014, even cited UNSCR 1325 in its recommendations to the summit. Despite nominally calling on this resolution often, the UK summit failed to act upon it in the event itself.

The other problem lies in not educating or disarming Congolese men. During wartime, soldiers dehumanize the enemy. Rape becomes a common side effect of that process of dehumanization and struggle for power. Educating soldiers during the conflict about their roles in the conflict and about the effects of rape could help. Crucially, disarming soldiers after conflict would help to restore a peaceful power balance in society. Offering programs for re-entry into civilian society could help as well.

On the eve of the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, ensuring the effectiveness of dollars spent is crucial, and the PSVI example is arguably a prime example of ineffective aid. A simple budget increase may not be enough to fulfill these goals; instead, aid providers should reframe current monetary flows into new violence prevention projects that increase the involvement of women and that educate and disarm men. Having high-profile leaders of the movement helps to mobilize funds and rally global support, but problems on the ground can only be fixed in partnership with the citizens there.

Elizabeth Melampy is a researcher with the Project on U.S. Leadership in Development at CSIS. 

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