This paper explores the history of gender-based violence (GBV) as a component of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the last twenty-five (25) years. This work seeks to examine the role of the United Nations (UN) in the implementation of gender-sensitive Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programmes to combat the causes and effects of GBV. It concludes with specific recommendations regarding the potential of gender-sensitive reintegration processes to improve the efficacy and reach of UN efforts in DRC.
The eastern provinces of DRC have been ravaged by conflict for the last twenty-five (25) years. Both domestic and regional conflicts have been spurred on by a carousel of armed groups eager to control territory and the underlying minerals that drive DRC’s economy. Similar to the Sahel Region, DRC and the Great Lakes Basin have “porous and largely unguarded” national borders, which has led to a series of interrelated ethnic and national disputes. Further, the ongoing impacts of climate change are also contributing to violence, as armed groups are more likely to compete over resources such as food and water. The conflict persists in many forms and has been further exacerbated by the effects of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. There are a huge slate of relevant actors, with armed groups tied to – and likely funded by – each country in the Great Lakes Region, notably: DRC, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Tanzania. DRC and the Great Lakes Region face identical challenges to the Sahel in this regard and there are growing calls for governments to allocate “a greater share of resources towards reconciliation, dialogue, and tangibly improving livelihoods”.
Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in DRC
One unfortunate reality of the conflict in DRC has been the disproportionate impact on women and girls through rampant sexual and gender-based violence. In UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2612, the UN renewed their mission in DRC (MONUSCO) for another 12 months. The resolution included 32 references to the sexual components of the conflict and 14 references to GBV. In 2012, the UN University reported that up to 40 women were being raped every day in North and South Kivu. This has not decreased – with the UN Secretary General reporting in 2021 that armed groups routinely use sexual and GBV to “dehumanize and displace populations”. These are extremely concerning figures and statistics. Although pictures of the conflict typically show boys forced to become child soldiers and men in conflict over minerals, women and girls are facing a sexual violence epidemic. Sexual and GBV is often considered to be “an early indication of a descent into conflict or escalation of conflict”. With that in mind, it is clear that the situation in DRC is in dire need of additional attention and support, centering the perspective of women and youth.
GBV Response in DRC
The decades of conflict in DRC can be divided into various phases. Since 2008, disputes have largely consisted of intense continuing conflicts developing in the eastern provinces. UN responses in this complex environment have evolved to include active commitments to the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) or Youth, Peace, and Security (YPS) agendas. MONUSCO peacekeepers and staff have made progress in making their work more responsive to the needs of women and children, although there is still much more to do. This demonstrates an evolving approach to peacekeeping efforts in DRC, which has fostered an environment conducive to gender-sensitive peacebuilding.
DDR in DRC
In response to the DRC and similar continuing conflicts, the United Nations (UN) began implementing DDR initiatives within peacekeeping operations and post-conflict reconstruction, starting in 1992. DDR involves emphasizing combatant disarmament, followed by a demobilization process that limits the connections ex-combatants have to their old armed groups. Reintegration – the final stage – is based on giving ex-combatants the tools to become a part of the peace process and to effectively rejoin society. The landmark UNSCR 1325 fostered a community of thought pertaining to the advancement of the role of women in peacebuilding. It has become clear that women and youth are critical to the success of DDR initiatives, especially in DRC.
The UN’s Future in DRC
Some potential wrinkles for the UN are the ongoing developments in DRC pertaining to the planned withdrawal of MONUSCO by the end of 2024. Knowing that this was on the horizon, MONUSCO and the Office of the Special Envoy for the Great Lakes (OSESG-GL) have been planning for an increase in non-military measures and a transition of authority to the national government. This can be seen through the DRCs 2019-2022 National Action Plan for implementing UNSCR 1325 and the development of the PDDRCS program – an initiative popular with President Tshisekedi that seeks to continue DDR efforts alongside MONUSCO and beyond. These efforts demonstrate a continued willingness by DRC to address the various conflicts within their borders, yet there are still significant opportunities to improve their DDR programming and to implement more gender-sensitive policies.
Making DDR Gender-Sensitive
MONUSCO’s 2021 mandate renewal included language requiring DDR programmes to be “sensitive to the needs and experiences of women and girls”. This is a key intervention from the UN, but it has not always been the reality. UNSCR 2098 established DDR in the country, and it was expected to be a critical driver of peace. DDR has undergone distinct phases in DRC, with DDR I (2004-2007), DDR II (2008-2011), and DDR III (2013-Present). DDR III was the result of a key military victory on the part of FARDC – the UN-supported DRC military – over M23, an armed group with ties to Rwanda. This led to the disarmament of several armed groups and represented a victory for DDR efforts. What some viewed as a potential waterfall moment for DDR did not pan out; increasing instability, a lack of resources, and a desire to protect communities have contributed to armed groups continuing to be active throughout the region.
The component of DDR most deserving of additional attention is reintegration. Not only is it necessary to think about providing ex-combatants with pathways out of conflict, but it is also essential to consider the corresponding impacts on the communities they re-enter. On the one hand, ex-combatants are less likely to rejoin an armed group if they have a consistent income source, but it is challenging to ask community members to accept reintegrated ex-combatants, who in most cases, have contributed to violence, rape, and death in the surrounding area. MONUSCO’s most common pathway to reintegration for ex-combatants is to give them jobs in the FARDC, although this has been proven to maintain their elevated status and give them additional opportunities to exploit arms and their surroundings. This has been coined by some as “reinsertion rather than reintegration” as ex-combatants were not given sufficient opportunity for economic prosperity following their demobilization. With that in mind, DDR initiatives in DRC are attempting to expand into other sectors, away from the military and security sectors. It is within this attempt to reform reintegration efforts that we can better incorporate the role of women and youth in peacebuilding.
Opportunities for Gender-Sensitive Reintegration
Recommendation 1 – Artisanal Mining
One key critique of current reintegration programmes in DRC is that they do not offer adequate financial opportunities to ensure that ex-combatants do not rejoin armed groups. One solution that is in the early stages of development is to incorporate ex-combatants back into the artisanal and small-scale mining sector (ASM) sector. ASM is a highly lucrative industry, thereby allowing ex-combatants to have the opportunity to be financially independent. The main concern is that mining and critical minerals have historically been a major driver of conflict and therefore it seems – at face value – counterintuitive to utilize it for peacebuilding purposes. That said, funding ASM reintegration projects can be effective in centering peacebuilding around communities, women, and children.
By investing in ASM projects, the UN’s DDR programme in DRC could limit the upfront costs for youth and at-risk children to enter the ASM sector. This would provide more prosperous and safer career paths for youth, while simultaneously contributing to more effective ex-combatant reintegration. Another key component is that additional funding and interest in the ASM sector would require community-owned ‘cooperatives’, which would oversee mining practices and mineral supply management. These requirements are in line with OECD Due Diligence Guidelines and currently 40% of ASM cooperative employees are women. With this in mind, ASM DDR projects could increase women’s economic participation and ensure women are active in community management of ASM activities. Finally, accompanying CVR projects could be effective in providing support to ASM communities through mental health resources or infrastructure funding. This would counter the historically male-centric nature of DDR programming to ensure the surrounding communities and households are actively considered. Altogether, investing in ASM projects in DRC would be an effective way of supporting women and youth, while simultaneously mitigating the effects of conflict through non-military measures.
Recommendation 2 – Climate Change
A second avenue for reintegration projects is climate change mitigation. It is clear that climate change is a key issue in the Great Lakes Region, as access to resources and land has continued to foster the continuation of conflict. Reports indicate that “climate change could cost Africa a loss of agricultural output between 17-28 percent.” Addressing climate change in the region has gathered weight given the connections to conflict, but it must be viewed through an intersectional lens. Many experts argue that “efforts toward climate mitigation and adaptation may be misdirected if power relations remain invisible.” With that in mind, DDR opportunities in DRC have to be mindful of the ongoing and everchanging implications of climate change on ex-combatants and reintegration communities.
The most feasible and time-sensitive option is to subsidize employment through water-based projects. This would consist of funding well systems and water treatment technologies that: a) limit the progression of conflict over clean water access, and b) offer women and youth greater employment opportunities. Similar projects have been successful in Mali, whereby at-risk youth have been paid to setup water well systems, thereby limiting their likelihood of being recruited by armed groups. Similarly, projects in Ouatagouna and Menaka focused on intercommunity water management networks that required oversight committees. These projects allowed women to take on more prominent positions within the community and to increase their agency in addressing the effects of climate change. Based on the growing focus on climate change in the Great Lakes Region, UN DDR programs in DRC should strongly consider further studies and research into the ways in which women, youth, and ex-combatants are each affected by climate change. This would allow for more informed and effective peacebuilding initiatives for women and youth.
Recommendation 3 – Regional Approaches
In recent years, greater UN efforts have been established in order to address the cross-border nature of conflict in DRC. For example, additional attention has been given to the issue of refugee camps and their role in both GBV and armed group recruitment. Historically, DDR efforts have been particular to domestic contexts, which is a key weakness of MONUSCO’s current efforts. With this in mind, the OSESG-GL has paid greater attention to potential regional initiatives. The UN should strongly consider improving security measures in refugee camps. Not only would this reduce GBV and rampant abuse in the largely unnoticed camps, but it would disrupt typical recruitment patterns for armed groups that routinely prey on refugees old and young.
Another key regional issue is the difference in resource provision and social support between countries. For example, UNICEF considers Rwanda a “top-performing” country in education. On the contrary, DRC continues to struggle with enrolment. Given the critical nature of education provision in fulfilling the YPS and WPS agendas, the UN OSESG-GL should establish a regional body on education standards. This would allow for best practices to be shared and to ensure that displacement does not interfere with the education of youth. A few years ago, this would have been highly optimistic, but recent interest has emerged amongst DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Uganda for the use of non-military measures to address conflict. Clearly, supporting education provision in the Great Lakes would go a long way to ensuring youth are given the support they need and that conflict cycles are not self-fulfilled.
Raging conflict in eastern DRC has contributed to an epidemic of sexual and GBV, with a disproportionate impact on women and girls. Although UN peacekeeping response measures have typically focused on male-centred solutions, there are opportunities within DDR programming to improve the representation of women and youth, as well as the corresponding efficacy of initiatives. At times, the WPS and YPS agendas are accused of being performative without enough clear substance. This may be true, but DDR programs in DRC are increasingly seeking opportunities to focus on community-based intervention, with an eye to the particular needs of women and youth. Through innovative solutions to climate change, economic needs, and regional-wide conflict, there are opportunities to implement DDR programmes with a significantly wider impact. With this in mind, it is clear that the time is now for the UN and DRC to shift from focusing on men and their weapons to women and their potential.
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