Gender inequality contributes to increased health risks of women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Socio-cultural norms place women and girls at a lower social status than men, limiting women’s livelihood options and exacerbating power dynamics that favor men. To survive, they may turn to sex work and other forms of informal income that increase the risk of sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV) and infections such as HIV.
Years of conflict have fostered an environment where SGBV is common in the DRC. According to the most recent DHS survey in the DRC more than half of women have experience physical violence and nearly 60% have experience spousal violence. Many women and girls have become pregnant as a result of rape, while others have been infected with HIV, dramatically altering their futures, livelihoods, and prospects.
Extreme poverty, traditional cultural and social beliefs and practices – such as the importance of marrying a virgin, dowry payments to the bride’s family, and polygamy – put girls at risk for early marriage, which is linked with adverse health outcomes related to maternal morbidity and mortality. On average girls first get married at the age of 16 and 27% of girls aged 15-19 already have a child or one on the way . The adolescent fertility rate is high, explained in part by low usage of modern contraceptives and the barriers to accessing them.
Parents concerned about the value of their daughters’ virginity prior to marriage may decide not to send their daughters to school out of fear that they will be raped or solicited by men. This and other socio-cultural beliefs and practices limit girls’ educational prospects. As a result, the literacy rates among young women lag behind men’s. As long as gender inequity persists in the DRC women and girls will continue to be at risk for sexual and gender-based violence. This is why ASSP views gender issues as essential across all areas of the project.