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Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Moving from Words to Action: Taking Concrete Steps to Address Sexual Violence in the DRC

Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry presided over a high-level meeting at the United Nation’s Security Council to discuss the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a peace agreement—signed in February by 11 African nations—to end the conflict in eastern Congo.

The meeting came at a crucial moment for the women and girls of the DRC. In recent months, a new wave of violence has flared up in the eastern region of the DRC, forcing an estimated 66,000 people to flee to Uganda. Many women, children and youth are vulnerable to the brutal sexual violence that has so often characterized conflict in this region. In his remarks, Kerry drew attention to this “targeted, grotesque violence,” calling on governments to “hold human rights violators and abusers accountable” and urging participating governments to “move forward together so that we can address the root causes of this conflict and end it once and for all.”

Yet, while he declared the peace agreement “a very important first step,” Kerry also recognized that the agreement must be paired with concrete action on the part of governments and the international community to be truly effective. “The key question before all of us today is whether the commitments prescribed in the framework can be kept, will be kept,” Kerry stated. “Will they come to life, or are they only going to be destined to live on paper?” For the thousands of women and children who experience and/or are at risk of experiencing sexual violence on a daily basis, the importance of moving from promises to action cannot be overstated.

Sexual Violence and Firewood Collection

For women and girls in the conflict zones in the DRC, a major risk factor when it comes to sexual violence is the necessity of leaving the confines of the community where they are sheltered and often walking long distances to look for firewood, during which time they may be kidnapped, raped, tortured or killed. According to women interviewed by the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) for our 2011 report “We Have No Choice: Safe Access to Firewood and Alternative Energy in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo” women may be kidnapped in the morning, raped all day and then let go at night; other times they are kept and held as porters, informers or sex slaves. Despite these risks, women still go out and collect firewood because they have no choice; it is required for survival.

At the WRC, we are pushing for solutions that reduce displaced women's and girls' vulnerability to gender violence as they collect firewood. Our research has shown that the development of alternative sources of cooking fuel can help lessen the potential for attack. In 2008, the WRC, together with the World Food Programme and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, led an Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Task Force that developed guidance on how to address all fuel-related issues in humanitarian settings.

Putting this guidance (a matrix and decision tree diagrams) into action, we are currently undertaking a pilot project in the DRC, the goal of which is to ensure that crisis-affected populations in the Great Lakes region of Africa have safe access to appropriate, sustainable cooking fuel and alternative energy technologies. In North Kivu, where physical protection risks associated with firewood collection are particularly prominent at the moment due to significant, ongoing conflict, we are working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to reduce the number and frequency of trips that women must make to collect firewood, through the distribution of pre-manufactured fuel-efficient stoves (FES).

This small-scale pilot project, funded by the UK Department for International Development (DfID), is specifically documenting the impact of the distribution of FES on women’s risk of sexual violence during firewood collection in an emergency response context. The longer-term goal is both to scale up best practices in the region and to inform global understanding of the protection impact of FES distribution in emergencies.[1]

Investing in fuel-efficient stove programs is one example of a concrete step that can be taken to protect women and children from sexual violence. Other priority actions are detailed in a policy brief issued by InterAction, a coalition of U.S. relief and development nongovernmental organizations. The paper, “Women and Girls in Crisis: Reducing Gender-based Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” lays out priority recommendations for strengthening humanitarian response and improving security through concerted, well coordinated, well funded and sustained action from the UN system, the humanitarian community, donor governments and the government of the DRC.

Without increased investments to address gender-based violence in the DRC, women and girls in particular will continue to be vulnerable to the horrific attacks that have long characterized this protracted conflict. Now is the time for the international community to redouble its efforts to ensure protection for women and girls in the DRC.


[1] FES have not yet been distributed at scale in an emergency response context, thus the learning from this project is much needed including at a global level.

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence