DR Congo

UNICEF helps young people address and prevent sexual violence in DR Congo

By Natacha Ikoli

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 4 January 2012 – Despite increasing stability in many areas, violence still prevails in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Civilian populations continue to endure frequent small-scale attacks by armed groups and armed forces.

VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Natacha Ikoli reports on a programme helping adolescent Congolese girls fight discrimination and gender-based violence.

As always, children are the most vulnerable and the worst affected. Sexual violence continues to occur in appalling amounts, and children are too often the targets. Children also face forced use and recruitment by armed groups.

UNICEF has established child-friendly spaces to offer protection, education and recreational opportunities to displaced children in camps and host communities. But it was quickly noted that adolescents – and girls in particular – were harder to reach and engage.

In response, UNICEF is focusing special attention on the needs of adolescents.

VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Natacha Ikoli reports on a programme helping adolescent Congolese boys become allies against sexual violence.

Focus on adolescents

“UNICEF has placed a particular focus on the condition of adolescents in child-friendly spaces, creating spaces where they can freely express themselves on subjects that they feel are important to them,” said UNICEF Child Protection Officer Ildephonse Birhaheka.

UNICEF and its implementing partners, World Vision and Italian non-governmental organization AVSI, have developed specific programming to address adolescent girls’ and boys’ needs and interests. These programmes include adolescent discussion groups – girls-only and boys-only child-friendly spaces offering informal education and a platform for adolescents to express themselves, be heard and learn from their peers.

These sex-segregated discussion groups offer psychosocial support to children affected by conflict, and also provide an important opportunity to engage both boys and girls in the prevention of gender-based violence and the promotion of gender equality. Since 2008, an estimated 2,300 adolescents between ages 13 and 17 have participated in these groups.

Promoting gender equality

Girls and women are often treated as though they have little value, the result of traditional mind-sets and sexual taboos, said Adele Nsimire, an AVSI facilitator. Girls are often responsible for all their family’s household chores, and they are frequently deprived of the chance to go to school, limiting their opportunities in life.

But when girls- and boys-only groups discuss gender roles, early marriage, sexual violence, education, relationships and reproductive health, it encourages them to question and challenge discriminatory customs at the root of inequality and gender-based violence.

“A girl won't go to school because she's the servant in house,” Ms. Nsimire said. “These are the obstacles that girls from my discussion group have. But the more discussions we have, the more they now know what their rights are and slowly it is changing inside the family.”

Françoise Maniraghua, 16, is an avid participant in an adolescent discussion group for girls in Rugari Village. Her home life has changed significantly since she began attending. “Before I started going to the discussion group I had to do all house chores by myself. My older brother wouldn’t help,” she said. “Now we share all house chores.” Nzibomana, 17, has only attended the boys’ group a few times, yet he has already changed his views about his role within the family. “I see that girls do more chores than us.

They cook, they clean the house, and I think they suffer,” he said. “I really believe we have to start helping them.”

Preventing sexual violence

Girls’ and boys’ engagement and participation – both separately and together – are essential to address their distinct needs and concerns, especially when dealing with sexual violence.

The girls’ discussion groups have increased girls’ self-confidence, empowering them to seek the opportunities and respect previously denied to them, and the boys’ discussion group is helping UNICEF build allies against sexual violence. Together, the discussion groups create solidarity among peer groups and provide a basis for the development of community-based responses to violence.

“I thought when you were near a girl, you could handle her however you want, and that she shouldn’t even say anything,” said 17-year-old Cyprien, who has been attending the group for two months. “But now, I feel differently, and I know that touching a girl inappropriately and forcing her is not good.”

Cyprien is now a young leader in his community, speaking out against violence to his peers and neighbours. And these days, he says, “What I like the most is when we talk about falling in love.”