North Kivu Province - "I was going to fetch firewood from the forest to cook food for myself and my six children, when I came across armed men."
Anny*, 33, spoke to UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, in front of the tent that has become her home in North Kivu's Bulengo displacement camp. The site shelters tens of thousands of people displaced by violent conflict, climate disasters, economic crises and disease outbreaks that have mired the country in a humanitarian crisis.
Yet for many, even the shelter is cloaked in fear.
Anny lost her husband and fled her home when fighting approached their village. The camp provides only makeshift housing and there is no electricity, gas or access to the most basic services. Struggling to feed her family, she organized a trip into the nearby forest with two other women and her teenage daughter to collect firewood.
But soon after they arrived, Anny's nightmare began to unfold. "While we were collecting wood, these men appeared with knives and machetes, dressed in long robes... They told us to get down on the ground and threatened to kill us if we shouted for help."
Anny and her daughter were separated; each was raped at gunpoint. "They tore off our clothes...We resisted until we had no strength left," she told UNFPA.
Terror on top of Trauma
Sexual violence is increasingly being used by armed groups as a tactic to terrorize and control communities affected by conflict. Between 2021 and 2022, there was a 91 per cent rise in reports of gender-based violence in North Kivu province, and with the situation only deteriorating, millions of women and girls are in urgent need of protection.
Anny and her daughter's ordeal was not only physically brutal, but also psychologically devastating. Seeing her daughter in so much pain only deepened Anny's misery.
Women and girls in displacement settings are at heightened risk of sexual assault and coercion, while soaring hunger is forcing many to venture away from the camps in search of supplies and work, further exposing them to potential attacks and exploitation. Yet most survivors lack access to critical response and recovery support, such as post-rape care and treatment, which is critical to heal and avoid unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections such as HIV.
Anny initially kept silent about the rape, as the potential stigma was too much to bear. But some days later, she chanced upon a weekly information session supported by UNFPA, whose teams work across the camp to spread awareness of sexual and reproductive health topics, including gender-based violence.
She was relieved to learn she could seek medical treatment at a UNFPA mobile clinic in Bulengo, one of three so far set up in North Kivu to meet rocketing demand for sexual and reproductive health support. Since it started operating in June, more than 3,000 displaced people have used the clinic, including 200 for sexually transmitted diseases and 30 survivors of gender-based violence, who received medical care and referrals to legal and psychological services as needed.
Midwives Sifa Ndeze and Philomène Siyauswa Kasuera welcomed Anny, assuring her she was neither alone nor to blame for the assault. After being treated with care and in confidence, she was reassured enough to discreetly bring her daughter to the clinic as well.
The midwives also directed them to a safe space for women and girls, which offers health services and a refuge in which survivors of violence can heal from the horrors they have endured. The Bulengo space is among six established by UNFPA in the country's eastern provinces and has received more than 1,400 women and girls since it opened in May 2023.
Antoinette is a psychosocial worker who followed Anny's case. "It wasn't easy, sometimes she was desperate," she told UNFPA. "Fortunately, I managed to get her back on her feet."
At the safe space Anny is now learning to dye fabrics, part of a training course in livelihood skills to help survivors regain their confidence and earn an income. When she completes her course, Anny will also receive cash transfers to strengthen her economic recovery and autonomy.
Support against all odds
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has one of the world's most complex and protracted crises, with more than 6 million people displaced within the country - 98 per cent of them in eastern provinces.
As disasters multiply, humanitarians like Ms. Ndeze are always ready to assist. "As an internally displaced person and midwife myself, working at the mobile clinic means I can continue to practise my profession and help these women," she explained.
As UNFPA executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem said on this year's World Humanitarian Day, "Our humanitarian colleagues safeguard the health, dignity, safety and rights of women, girls and young people across the globe. Their persistence reminds us that the bright light of human possibility refuses to dim, even amidst the most challenging circumstances."
Estimates show more than 1 million women this year are at risk of gender-based violence, particularly sexual violence, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To continue scaling up its programmes in Ituri, North and South Kivu in 2023, UNFPA urgently needs $18.8 million, of which only $4 million has been pledged.
*Name changed for privacy and protection