A Model for the Future Lies in DRC: Invest in Girls and Women
By Christina Mallie, Founding ED of Colors of Connection
Narratives about the Congo are plagued by negativity: civilian massacres, conflict-driven rape and poverty. They are stories that overlook the beauty, resilience and talent of its people, in particular half of the population — women and girls. I’ve been away from the DRC for a year, and being back in Goma near Lake Kivu bordering Rwanda is inspiring. I am once again struck by how people often seem to move through their daily lives with such determination, and warm expressive connection with each other, despite years of sustained conflict and the added trials of COVID-19. Being here, it is clear to me that with investment and the right approaches, a prosperous future could be in this place. From a distance, this is a counterintuitive idea. But on the ground, witnessing the resilience of the Congolese, — even in the face of state dysfunction, the fallout of recent natural disaster, criminal and armed group violence and the daily grind of poverty — what people and this country are truly capable of is driven home.
This is a pivotal moment in history when we are grappling with big questions: Will our planet continue to be habitable? How to prepare for the next pandemic? Will the wealth gap keep getting bigger? It is exactly the right moment to turn resources, attention, and support towards areas that are not only most in need, but also where the majority of the world’s population will be concentrated in coming years.
The world faces unprecedented and drastic change that is assured and simultaneously unknown. Today, Francophone African countries (DRC being the most populous) make up the majority of most underdeveloped countries globally. Projections for future areas of extreme poverty predict that by 2030, one in three people in the world living in extreme poverty will be in a Francophone African country. At the same time, the world is undergoing a massive population shift. In 2100 we don’t know where DRC will stand in terms of development, but we know that it will likely be the 6th most populous country in the world, with a total of 362 million citizens — a population jump of 304 percent. Other fast-growing African nations, including Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Egypt, will join DRC in the projected top 10, but the DRC is currently the poorest among them. While this is disheartening, the worst outcomes aren’t inevitable: forward-thinking shifts in how we approach international aid and development could build a better future. To do this, we need to stop overlooking gender inequity.
Often, the focus of efforts at stability or growth zero in on economic or political challenges. But systemic misogyny is a less visible issue undermining these efforts. Gender equality is intrinsically linked to increases in development, wealth, and democracy and decreases in conflict, poverty, disease, loss of life, and a sustainable population. Another way of putting it is: investing in women and girls is synonymous with investing in economic growth, political stability, and democratic processes. When half the population experiences systematic marginalization and violence, we cannot thrive economically, politically, or spiritually.
Despite a growing body of evidence demonstrating that gender equality is the lynchpin for national progress and global wellbeing, the needs of girls and women remain largely unfunded. In 2011 more than 95% of the 1.2 billion aid bundle from France to the DRC went to government debt relief instead of development support. Yet the most recent Demographic Health Survey data for DRC shows that 63.8% of girls and young women aged 15–24 report their first sexual experience as forced. Only 37% of girls and women (aged 15–49) complete primary school level, and 15% have no education. More than half of women (52%) have experienced physical violence. There is no comprehensive law addressing violence against women.
The best effort at a stable future, in the DRC and beyond, is one that invests in gender equality and the rising generation of future women: girls in the DRC. Until we do this, all our efforts at progress will be undermined. Without equity, the potential of a huge proportion of the population is stunted — prevented from education, work, voting and otherwise contributing to society. We are at a moment in which a new future is within reach for DRC. But if we continue to ignore the plight of women and girls, we all stand to lose.