How UK aid is changing lives in the DRC

Valeria Sau
Tokens enable young people to access sexual and reproductive health services without having to answer questions in public first

I’ve been told many times about the beauty of the Democratic Republic of Congo and landing in the provincial capital Goma all my expectations were confirmed. Goma is situated about 1,500m above sea level, surrounded by green mountains, volcanos and the Kivu lake. The landscape is astonishing: both beautiful, and unexpectedly peaceful.

A boat on Lake Kivu, Goma, DRC

But no-one should be fooled by this apparent peace. Lake Kivu is in fact considered to be one of the most dangerous lakes in the world, because of the high concentration of natural gas that, combined with strong volcano activity, could provoke a catastrophic eruption at any time.

This is a bit like the reality of Goma and of the DRC itself. Over 20 years of conflict do not pass without leaving a deep scar in the lives of those who survived.

People have had to witness an unbearable level of violence, one that no-one should ever experience. One person told me he had to bury 11 members of his family in a single day during the conflict in Kivu.

Surviving conflict

Suddenly the apparent tranquillity of Goma, also known for the nightlife and the ability of its people to enjoy life, starts to reveal the truth beneath it. Just like the volcano, everything can explode from one day to another.

The recent conflict in the Kasai region has forced more than 1.4 million people to flee from their homes, seeking safety either elsewhere within the DRC or in neighbouring countries. At the same time, rebel militias are still active across the country, and political instability is likely to increase with the postponement of the elections that had been due to take place in December 2017.

In such a complex context, civilians are facing enormous needs as the government’s ability to provide for their wellbeing shrinks and they have to face enormous barriers to access services (primarily corruption: one of the most common sayings is “If you have the money, you can do everything you want in Congo”...).

Overcoming stigma

For young people (ages 15-24) living in the DRC, accessing sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information and services can be difficult. Adolescent girls face cultural norms, stigma, and expectations that limit their ability to seek health information and services on their own. And if they do, they may be either denied care because of their age – or shamed for seeking it out.

Before, girls were scared to go to the sexual health centre for fear of being considered like a prostitute. Now everybody goes to the centre and I feel free to go and get the treatment I need. – Young woman, age 23

On top of all this, money can be another barrier to seeking assistance. Too many young girls have to resort to transactional sex in order to pay for their studies, to provide for their younger siblings, or to care for a parent who is ill.

In the case of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or an unwanted pregnancy, they are even more vulnerable as they are forced to increase the number of partners to pay for the treatment, or to pay someone willing to provoke an abortion in unsafe conditions (abortion is illegal in the DRC).

Health officer and nurse at SRH project in DRC
Bangamwabo Molima Leonard, Adventist Church Health Department Director, and Ayuwera Jeanne, nurse at the Keshero Youth Friendly Space

Creating positive change

CARE designed the Vijana Juu project (Swahili for “Up with Youth”) in collaboration with adolescents and youth to respond to these needs. With the support of the British public and UK aid ‘match funding’ (where donations from CARE supporters were doubled by the UK Department For International Development), Vijana Juu aims to improve the quality of and access to reproductive health services for adolescents in Goma, while increasing their ability to themselves create positive change in their lives and communities.

Thanks to this project, my community changed their attitude towards family planning and sexual health.  – Young woman, age 18

To achieve this, we have been working with some local churches to build community participation and ensure the sustainability of the project. It was not an easy task to engage religious leaders and the surrounding communities to accept provision of SRH services, including contraception, to youth and adolescents, and especially at the beginning we faced many challenges. Parents and some members of the congregation thought the project would promote promiscuity and risky behaviours among their children.

Reverend Kahindo Matumo Sem in the DRC
Reverend Kahindo Matumo Sem, Pastor, CBCA

Changing attitudes

Eventually, this perception changed and the feedback received on the project has been incredibly positive. One pastor even hosted a voluntary screening for STI/HIV and distributed condoms in his church. And parents are now encouraging their children to attend the meetings at the youth spaces to be informed about SRH.

I have three sons and three daughters and they all participate in the activities at the centre. The message of the church is always to promote abstinence, but we have to think of our youths who are not strong enough to commit to it and think about their future. – Pastor, CBCA

Preliminary findings from the project evaluation show that young people now:

  • feel free to access SRH services without any fear of stigma
  • know how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and the risk of exposure to STI/HIV
  • have free access to health services and trained personnel.

Despite working with only a few churches who agreed to partner with CARE in this programme, every girl or boy from any religious group can access the health centre and the youth space set up at two Baptist and one Adventist church. The use of an anonymous referral system, with a token given by the peer leader directly to the youth, enabled anyone to access the service without having to answer questions at the entrance about the reason for their visit. This was a key point in building the youths’ confidence to access services and to speak about SRH issues. 

I especially like the participation of youths in the services and their involvement in the change in the community. I am proud to be part of this. – Young man, age 23

Despite these achievements, more work is yet to be done to extend these services outside Goma, to the rural areas affected by conflict where adolescent girls face even more risks related to SRH and the consequences of sexual violence. Starting a dialogue with other religious group is also an important step going forward to promote change at community level and ensure that young people of all beliefs have access to the services and also to feel free to talk about SRH with their families and communities.

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Valeria Sau's picture

Valeria Sau is Humanitarian Programme Coordinator (Africa/Latin America and the Caribbean) for CARE International UK.