Combating gender-based violence with groundwater

How improved water supply contributes to reducing physical and sexual Violence Against Women in the DRC

Access to clean water is one of the major challenges facing inhabitants in the DRC. Women and young girls, being the ones responsible for household water supply, are often exposed to sexual violence and other physical assaults in their quest for this scarce resource. With the intervention of humanitarian aid during the country's crises, the rise of private initiatives increasingly resorting to groundwater drilling offers a lifeline to women and young girls in various parts of the DRC. However, the rate of water supply remains low.

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Photograph | Marie Frechon [UN Photo]
Photograph by Marie Frechon [UN Photo]

Dangerous, nightly quest for water  

Generally, the task of fetching water falls upon the shoulders of the women in the household. This is no different for Kavugho Aline, a young girl in her early teens and living with her parents in the city of Beni, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was supposed to be in class by now. In fact, it has already been more than two hours after the scheduled start time at her school located in Kasanga-Tuha, one of the western outskirts of the city.

"But we have had no water since yesterday”, Kavugho says. “The small remainder served to cook dad's food and wash the baby. My two brothers have already gone to school, and mom has tasked me with finding water," she says with a worried expression.

“My two brothers have already gone to school, and mom has tasked me with finding water," the teenage girl says with a worried expression.

What seems like gender-based discrimination is generally tolerated within the local community.And Kavugho’s worries don’t even stem from missing yet another day of school, because, unfortunately, educational inequalities pale in comparison to the dangers faced by women in their quest for water in this part of the DRC. Further away in Mambango, women testified to numerous cases of rape that their peers fall victim to while searching for water here, at the only water point in the neighborhood located near a military camp of the DRC army.

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Collected treated water |  Caroline Gluck [OXFAM]
Collected treated water |  Caroline Gluck [OXFAM]

With the nearest water point being far away, women have to leave home before daylight, with all the risks that come with such an expedition. "To hope to fetch water, you have to wake up very early in the morning, often between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. to return around noon”, testifies Nziavake Joice, a resident of Mambango “This makes us take risks. Unfortunately, some of us have been targeted by rapists."

“To fetch water, you have to wake up very early in the morning, often between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. to return around noon. This  exposes us to risks."

Sadly, these cases mentioned Nziavake are no stand-alone cases of assaults targeting women and young girls who travel long distances in search for drinking water and doing laundry. It is also the case in the Bwito chiefdom in the Rutshuru territory, where the organization Dynamic Women Engaged for Change and Self-Empowerment (DFCA) indicated that out of the 10 cases of sexual violence recorded in November 2023, 6 were due to the quest for water. "In some places here in our Rutshuru territory, a woman has to travel between 1, 3, or more kilometers to reach a water source”,  explains Clarisse Kivunda, coordinator of this women's organization based in Rutshuru-Center. “And even in places where water supply exists, the taps are insufficient or outdated, which still exposes young girls and women to danger."

Cases of rape exacerbated by armed conflicts

These dangers that challenge these women in the northeastern part of DRC everyday, are happening against the backdrop of the armed conflict that has gripped this region. A conflict that is probably one of the most underexposed in global media, but that already took a heavy toll on millions of people.

The Northeastern part of the country, rich of minerals like cobalt, gold and copper, has a decades-long past of unrest. However, violence has intensified in recent years. Approximately 1.5 million people have been displaced over the past two years of devastating conflict between the armed group M23, which (according to the UN security council report S/2012/348/Add.1) is backed by Rwanda on one side and the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo, supported by foreign states and local militias on the other. UNHCR has even reported that, in total, more than 6.2 million people are displaced within the DRC, placing the country at the top of the list of countries with the largest population of internally displaced persons in the world.

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Bulengo IDP camp (North Kivu) as refuge for people fleeing armed conflict  |  Aubrey Graham [Irin]
Bulengo IDP camp (North Kivu) as refuge for people fleeing armed conflict  |  Aubrey Graham [Irin]

The conflict particularly left its mark on women safety. NGO CARE International note that reports of gender-based violence are increasing, with women and girls likely to face additional risks of assault, exploitation, and sexual abuse. Deprived of everything, including access to food, clothing, and water, women and young girls may resort to mechanisms such as transactional sex and begging for food, further exposing them to the risk of exploitation and abuse. Since the recent escalation of violence in 2023, the number of people affected by sexual violence has increased.

“Between 2021 and 2022, the reported  cases of gender-based violence doubled, from 40,000 to over 80,000. In the first three months of 2023 alone, over 31,000 cases were reported." 

According to a rapid gender analysis report by CARE International, the number of people affected by sexual violence is dramatically increasing in the DRC. Between 2021 and 2022, the reported cases of gender-based violence doubled, from 40,000 to over 80,000. In the first three months of 2023 alone, over 31,000 cases were reported.

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joint  monusco- fardc operation near beni |  sylvain liechti [un photo]
Joint monusco-fardc operation near beni | Sylvain Liechti [un photo]

About 33 million people without clean water

The DRC possesses more than 50% of the water reserves on the African continent, but despite this fabulous potential, 33 million people in urban areas as well as in rural areas do not have access to quality water.

“Chronic malnutrition, affecting 43% of children aged 0 to 5 across the entire Congolese  territory, also results from the low rate of access to clean water"

According to UNICEF, the rate of chronic malnutrition affecting 43% of children aged 0 to 5 across the entire Congolese territory also results from the low rate of access to clean water, sanitation services, and the non-adoption of basic hygiene practices. 

Progress, but still a slow process

Meanwhile, REGIDESO, a public establishment responsible for distributing and commercialising water in the DRC, indicates that access to drinking water across the national territory increased by 6 percent in the year 2023. "The rate of access to drinking water from the Regideso in the Democratic Republic of Congo has increased from 30 to 36%, within a year," reads an account from the Congolese Press Agency.

In the city of Beni, the access rate to drinking water is estimated at around 30%, according to Amédée Kamala, supervisor at the urban office for hydrocarbons and electricity. This is a slight improvement compared to the past five years, during which the water supply rate was 17%, added this public official.

Solidarités International has been working on the construction of drinking water infrastructure in the city of Beni for several years. This French organisation estimates that it has provided drinking water to the majority of Beni's population permanently and sustainably, i.e., providing a minimum of 10 liters of water per day to 170,000 people between 2003 and 2005. However, today, the population has grown towards 600,000 inhabitants, according to civil registry statistics, making this effort relative.

“In the neighbouring city of Butembo, with a population of over 1 million inhabitants, the access rate to drinking water has increased to approximately 30%"

In the neighboring city of Butembo, with a population of over 1 million inhabitants, the access rate to drinking water has increased to approximately 30%, according to Alexandre Kitsa from the urban service for energy and hydrocarbons. This improvement is largely attributed to the Ebola epidemic. The deadly virus first occurred in the North Kivu province, particularly in Butembo between August 2018 and June 2020, and to combat this epidemic, clean water was required for handwashing. Yet, water was not accessible. Thus, humanitarian organisations invested in projects for supplying clean water.

Groundwater, a lifeline!

In 2015, a law reform ended the monopoly in water production, distribution, and commercialisation held by REGIDESO, a state-owned company. This law stipulates that "the permanent right to use water from the public domain for general interest purposes, including the production of electricity and the distribution of drinking water by network as well as agricultural, mining, industrial, and tourist activities is granted, as appropriate, by the government or provincial government to any natural or legal person, public or private, by a concession contract..."

This significant legislative advancement has boosted private initiatives with the multiplicity, especially in the cities of Beni and Butembo, but also in other parts of the country, of private drilling using solar energy or manually operated methods (locally called Kadukadu) to draw water from the depths of the earth. And that seems to have a positive impact on women safety as well.

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The iconic yellow jerry cans that make up the scenery in this part of the DRC. An average family of four uses 8 of these jerry cans per day |  Jonas Kiriko
An average family of four uses 8 of these jerry cans per day |  Jonas Kiriko

According to the women’s rights organisation FEPSI, based in Butembo and dealing with the care of victims of sexual violence, the number of cases due to water search has significantly decreased in this city and its surroundings.

“We believe that it is thanks to the contribution of humanitarian  organisations and the use of private drilling that many households access water and that  the cases of  sexual violence resulting from  it are decreasing"

"In June 2023, we recorded two cases of sexual violence in the Beni territory. The victims were searching for water in a valley because the few taps installed in their village had dried up", explains Marie-Dolorose Kavira, executive secretary of FEPSI. “This is a significant decrease compared to the dozens of cases we used to record five or ten years ago”. When asked for her perspective on this decrease, Marie-Dolorose sees one major actor. "We believe that it is thanks to the contribution of humanitarian organisations and the use of private drilling that many households access water and that the cases of sexual violence resulting from it in the past are decreasing", she assures.

Given the rapid urban population growth and the Congolese government's inability to meet the water needs of its population, several private structures have emerged to address the water shortage through sectoral supply systems. According to Amédée Kamala from the urban service of energy and hydraulic resources in the city of Beni, efforts to promote the 2015 water law must be intensified." This could completely put an end to water-related sexual violence”, he advocates. “In this regard, the Beni municipality plans to establish a permanent water office whose responsibilities will be to assess the water needs of the population and seek partners to help meet the state's needs.”

But privatisation is no ‘silver bullet’

Nevertheless, it should be noted that the price of a 20-liter jerrycan of water from a private drilling varies between 100 and 500 Congolese Francs (equivalent of $0,04 and $0,18), depending on whether it is the rainy or dry season. To put this in perspective, the average monthly income in North Kivu is only $17,- and a standard household of 4 people needs about 8 jerrycans per day. This means the total costs are about $9,92 in the rainy season, which would constitute 58% (!) of the monthly income. With the increased prices in dry season, total spending for water would rise to $44,64, more than twice the average monthly income. Needless to say, there is still work to be done to make also these private water solutions more accessible.  

“To put this in  perspective, the average monthly income in North Kivu is only $17,- and a standard household of 4 people needs about 8 jerrycans per day. This means the total costs are about $9,92 in the rainy season, which would constitute 58% (!) of the monthly income." 

In addition, Clarisse Kivunda from the DFEA organization believes that efforts should be made to combat the feminization of water search within households. "Fetching water should not be considered solely the responsibility of women or young girls in the community", declares the women's rights advocate. For her, these cases of violence could have been avoided if men were involved in household water supply on an equal footing with women, or at the very least, if young girls were accompanied by their brothers to the various water points."

If water can become even more accessible and the collection of water becomes a shared responsibility, girls like Kavugho Aline no longer need to live in fear and can join her two brothers in class.

About the Author

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Jonas Kiriko

Jonas Kiriko is Groundwater Correspondent for DR Congo and professional journalist.