Sexual abuse is widespread in the humanitarian sector of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The observatory was set up to discuss, among others, crises that plague the humanitarian sector, including sexual abuse in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The Humanitarian Observatory (HO) is a suitable space for academics, civil society, international and state actors to discuss humanitarian governance challenges so to contribute in shedding light on how to go about them sustainably.
A pervasive issue with devastating consequences
Sexual abuse has become a significant problem in the DRC’s humanitarian sector. Incidents of sexual abuse by humanitarian actors are widespread, as humanitarian activity has sharply increased. Independent news agency the New Humanitarian is one of the platforms reporting on these developments — in September last year it highlighted the stories of 34 cases of alleged sexual abuse that resulted in pregnancy. The majority of the women reported abuse from employees of United Nations agencies, others from those working for international humanitarian agencies. More recently, that the number of women reporting sexual abuse by aid workers is still growing.
The reports of purported victims of sexual abuse indicate that sexual abuse in the DRC has two main faces: (i) the sexual exploitation of aid recipients — that is, trading aid for sex, and (ii) the sexual exploitation of job applicants or colleagues lower in rank — that is, trading sex for jobs, job security, or promotions. One of the women interviewed by the New Humanitarian related that she was only 15 years old when her boss started inviting her to a hotel for sexual relations, claiming that she was to have sex with him if she wanted to keep her job. A few months later, she became pregnant, and she is now in charge of raising her young daughter at her own expense.
A space for talking about sexual abuse
One year ago, in October 2022, a group of people in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) — humanitarians, academics, civil society actors and others — got together to form a Humanitarian Observatory. The observatory, one of a handful set up in different countries as part of the
At the observatory event on 15 March this year, we chose to focus the discussion on sexual abuse in the humanitarian sector in the DRC. Sexual abuse scandals in the humanitarian sector have been widely reported, but occasions where we as Congolese can talk about such issues are few and far between. The launch of the observatory therefore served as a space for us to openly discuss the issue — something that has not truly been done to date — in particular how sexual abuse comes about and what needs to be done to address the problem, especially by those working on the ground in the DRC.
The meeting of the Humanitarian Observatory where the issue was discussed had 18 participants comprised of 10 men and 8 women. Of the 18 participants, four were humanitarian aid workers, ten were researchers, and four were civil society actors. We could therefore have a balanced discussion in which different participants highlighted different dimensions of the issue and proposed several possible measures. Below, we highlight some of the main observations that were made at the meeting.
Shame and fear drive silence
First of all, it was noted that victims are ashamed of having been sexually abused and therefore many victims prefer not to speak out in view of cultural restrictions for women; this is even more so in the case of male victims of sexual abuse. People may also be afraid to speak out because they fear retaliation from the perpetrator.
Similarly, even though most of the participants of the discussion are active in the humanitarian sector, there seemed to be an informal agreement among victims about refraining from telling personal stories about or mentioning the names of people they knew to be perpetrators. Instead, in order to keep the discussion safe, participants spoke about sexual abuse as an external phenomenon rather than as practices they are involved in or have witnessed first-hand.
Here are some other observations that participants made:
- The problem is widespread. Reflecting on the problem, the participants agreed that (forced or consensual) sexual relations are rampant in the humanitarian sector. Many humanitarian male actors have condoms in their offices or while traveling for fieldwork. Moreover, it is very common that victims are invited into hotel rooms. Women are deceived with flattering words of promises of marriage, or they are just being told they need to consent if they want to keep their jobs. This may also happen to young women in need that are exploited for promises of goods or other gains. It is also rather common that humanitarian workers seek sexual relations with women engaged in small trade activities around the humanitarian compounds or women engaged in small jobs for the agencies, such as cleaning or cooking.
- Men at all levels are the perpetrators. The participants to the observatory found it important to note that accusations of sexual abuse concern men at all levels of the organization, from managers and office workers (such as human resources officers) to fieldwork staff, drivers, guards, and people with odd jobs working alongside women in cleaning and cooking. This is important because these latter groups are often not aware of codes of conduct and are not being involved in awareness-raising activities.
- Several context-specific factors make sexual abuse possible. A first factor is formed by the misery, poverty, and vulnerability among community members, who rely mostly on humanitarian assistance. The second factor is formed by the long-term stay of humanitarian personnel and operations of humanitarian agencies in the area, with little control or accountability of international and national non-governmental organizations working in isolated or remote zones. In these conditions, many women seeking access to aid, funding, or employment have resigned themselves to the idea that sexual relations are a largely unescapable ‘part of the deal’ and that their protests will not be heard.
- Patriarchal norms help normalize sexual abuse. And above all, it was recognized that sexual abuse is related to a dominant or hegemonic Congolese masculinity based on common and informal cultures, where men behave as if they are entitled to have sex in return for favours.
Reflecting on this discussion, we can ask how we can prevent and fight against the phenomenon. At the end of the observatory meeting, the participants together formulated two main recommendations for actions that can be taken:
- Rethinking norms of masculinity and combating toxic masculinity are crucial. Recognizing that the problem partly stems from cultural issues, it is a priority to promote positive masculinity through different means, including the news media and social media. It is important to combat predatory sexual behaviour and rethink masculinity norms. These should draw on alternative masculinity repertoires that can also be found in the DRC, such as the caring father or breadwinner forms of masculinity. In these, men are responsible providers for their family, including for their spouses, and at the same time provide space for women’s empowerment. It is a masculinity ideal where men considerably contribute to the household, both economically and socially.
- All workers in the humanitarian sector need to be made aware of behavioural norms and codes of conduct that should guide their actions. To combat sexual abuse in the humanitarian sector, awareness raising is a priority, focusing on humanitarian staff, including drivers, guards, and other male staff that are less exposed to training on codes of conduct and principles of humanitarian assistance. In addition, state actors, civil society organisations, and community members should be involved in awareness raising and following up on reported cases. It must be ensured that perpetrators are sanctioned according to legal, religious, and traditional norms of the Congolese society.
The above-mentioned actions will need to be enduring — a single, once-off intervention is insufficient given that cultural norms strongly shape the present situation, in particular by normalizing sexual abuse and providing a space for its continued existence. The Eastern Congo has become a permanent site of humanitarian assistance, and this is not likely to end soon. This means that sexual abuse will also remain an issue. This is not only a matter for the humanitarian agencies. It is important that all stakeholders, including communities, civil society, and state agencies, take responsibility to fight against sexual abuse.
 We acknowledge active participation of members of the Humanitarian Observatory discussions in the event of 15 March 2023 from which the current blog is written, namely Claude Iguma, Odile Bulabula, Gentil Kavusa, Denise Siwatula, Bilubi Ulengabo, Christian Namegabe, Shukuru Manegabe, Sifa Katembera, Henri Kintuntu, Wabenga Lunanga, Samuel Kyamundu, Prosper Lufungula, and Veronique Saleh.
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About the authors:
Patrick Milabyo Kyamusugulwa is Professor at the Institut Supérieur des Techniques Médicales de Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He is member of the DRC Humanitrian Observatory and member of the Social Science Centre for African Development-KUTAFITI.
Delu Lusambya Mwenebyake is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Delu is working on humanitarian governance in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Community-driven, accountability, and advocacy in Humanitarian Actions.
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