International Women's Day: Women live in inhumane conditions in the DRC - DRC Congo
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

International Women's Day: Inhumane conditions in the DRC

Over the past two years, more than one million women, men and children have fled the ongoing fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) North Kivu province. More than half of them have sought refuge near the provincial capital of Goma, with many living in inhumane conditions on improvised sites where everything is lacking: decent shelter, water, food, health care and protection from violence, including sexual assault.

Kanyaruchinya, north of Goma, is one of the largest camps in the region. The site initially hosted people affected by the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano in May 2021 before being re-entered by people fleeing the initial fighting in Rutshuru territory. At the end of October 2022, the population of Kanyaruchinya tripled in a matter of days. Eighteen months later, around 200,000 people are still living there in appalling conditions, in shelters made of tree branches and plastic sheeting. In Kanyaruchinya, as in most places around Goma, there is a shocking lack of humanitarian aid.


Humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo

In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the humanitarian crisis has reached dramatic proportions in 2023, with massive levels of violence and displacement.
Dora Naliesna

Anyone entering this vast site is struck by the number of women running around trying to make a living for themselves and their families, trying to earn some money by collecting and selling wood, sewing clothes or trying to cultivate the smallest plots of land available to maintain a modicum of dignity. In absolutely inhumane living conditions, thousands of them are raising children, often alone and doing their best to feed them, sometimes at the cost of their own safety, as sexual violence in and outside the site rapidly turned into another epidemic, along with cholera and measles. 

To help them and the people of Kanyaruchinya, MSF has been running the local health centre since July 2022. The small facility receives around 250 patients in need of primary health care daily, while the maternity ward helps a dozen women to give birth every day - nearly 3,300 in 2023.

International Women's Day: Women live in inhumane conditions in the DRC - DRC Congo
The health center of Mapendo being overcrowded by patients suspected with cholera in the first days of the outbreak, in the health zone of Rutshuru, North-Kivu, DRC.
Laora Vigourt/MSF

The women featured in these photo stories have all benefited from this support. Their testimonies, collected in January 2024, reveal their resilience in the face of multiple displacements in their lives, their strength to maintain hope despite harsh living conditions, but also their fears for the future of their families, as hopes for peace are scarce and violence in the place where they have sought refuge is, unfortunately, a daily reality.

Fatherless and motherless, Alice and her younger brothers fled Buhumba, in Nyiragongo territory, as fighting reached their village.

"When we saw people fleeing en masse, we got scared and sneaked through the crowd to the Bugere camp near Saké [25 kilometres west of Goma], she recalls.

Alice set up a small drinks shop on the road to earn some money for herself and her brothers in Bugere. It was there that she met Elie, who also fled Buhumba and with whom she moved to Kanyaruchinya. This is where the couple have been living since February 2023 and where their daughter, Rehema Alliance, was born 10 months later at the MSF clinic.

"Despite the conditions here, my pregnancy went well," she says, looking at her photo album, the only souvenir she brought back from Buhumba. "I was well looked after at the health centre, we got all the medicines we needed, and the advice and care was free.”

But today, she is worried about having a child in the camp. "Her future is not safe in the current conditions. What's more, armed bandits break into the shelters and ask us for money. If you don't have money, you run the risk of being killed.”

International Women's Day: Women live in inhumane conditions in the DRC - DRC Congo
Alice Feza, 19, looks at her child Rehema Alliance, born on 22 December 2023, in the displaced persons site of Kanyaruchinya, north of Goma, North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, on 4 January 2024.
Philémon Barbier

To support his family, Elie takes on a variety of odd jobs: motorcycle taxi, hairdresser, wooden plank transporter, etc. "It's not enough to earn a decent income, and it's hard for us to find enough to eat," he sighs. "In these conditions, having your first child is a bit sad, it's hard to explain. We live in a shelter where the water runs off when it rains and it's stifling when the sun shines.”

Despite all the difficulties Alice and Elie are going through, "the arrival of this child is a blessing," says Alice. "I can only be happy, and she can only be happy. But we must be able to return to the village when peace is restored.  When I receive news from my village, those who have stayed tell us that they are suffering even more than we are, because they have no humanitarian aid and the fighters are destroying the fields... Peace must return".

Originally from Kiwanja in Rutshuru territory, Francine arrived at the Kanyaruchinya site in October 2022.

"I fled by motorbike with my grandparents to Rugari, but we had no money to pay for the rest of the journey, so we walked here for days and nights without eating," she recalls.

This is the third time since 2006 that Francine has been forced to flee because of fighting in her hometown. "Each time, you have to start your life all over again," she sighs. In order to survive, she and her husband, Jean-de-Dieu, have set up a small business on the site, but they have gone into debt. The money they earn only allows them to eat once a day - a particularly complicated situation for this young breastfeeding mother who gave birth just three months ago in the MSF maternity, where she came today to have her baby vaccinated.

"Sometimes you lose your head and get totally discouraged," she explains. "My pregnancy was a time of extreme suffering. Being pregnant and sleeping on leaves under a tarpaulin is impossible.  And now, at the rate things are going, I'm very worried that my baby will soon suffer from malnutrition. It's very hard to find joy here.”

In addition to the extreme living conditions on the site, the armed violence in the camp is a further source of concern for Francine, who thought she was safe from the armed men. "The crackle of bullets is common in the camp, day and night," she explains.  "I sometimes wonder what the difference is between here and the village I fled, between the occupied zones and this camp?”

International Women's Day: Women live in inhumane conditions in the DRC - DRC Congo
Francine, 24, and Jean-de-Dieu, 29, both from Kiwanja in Rutshuru territory, look after their 3-month-old son Amini Naël outside their tent in the Kanyaruchinya IDP site north of Goma, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, 4 January 2024.
Philémon Barbier

Jeanne was living in Rugari, in the Rutshuru territory, when she was forced to flee the fighting and seek refuge in Kanyaruchinya. This is the second time she has had to flee violence in Rutshuru.

"I have lost everything," she tells us from her tiny shelter made of branches and plastic where she has lived "for four potato harvests". Too old to help in the fields, she now relies on the solidarity of other displaced people to survive. But given the conditions in the camp, she admits to going days without eating.

"Of my eight children, only one has survived the disease and violence," she says. "She is eight months pregnant and I am very afraid for her because she has to work in the fields and carry planks to get by.”

International Women's Day: Women live in inhumane conditions in the DRC - DRC Congo
Jeanne, 64, walks down a street in Kibati, north of Goma, North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with her daughter Aimée Zawadi, 26, and one of her children, on 4 January 2024.
Philémon Barbier
This is the first time I've experienced pregnancy in these conditions, and I'm very worried about my daughter's future. Aimée, Jeanne's daughter

Her daughter Aimée could not stay in Kanyaruchinya because of the living conditions in the camp. "I had to move to Kibati, two kilometres away, to stay in my husband's wooden hut because the doctors told me that, given my pregnancy, I could no longer sleep on the stones on the ground. This is the first time I've experienced pregnancy in these conditions, and I'm very worried about my daughter's future.

Jeanne now lives alone in the camp. "I hope that my daughter and granddaughter will have a better future. Today I have no choice but to hope. My biggest dream is to return home when peace is restored. I'm relying on God, he is the only one who can bring lasting peace.”

In November 2022, Gisèle fled with her parents from the village of Rugari in Rutshuru territory.

"We walked for three weeks before arriving here," she explains in early January 2024, a day after giving birth in the small maternity unit run by MSF in the Kanyaruchinya camp.

Today, Gisèle lives in a shelter next to her parents. But the father of her child is not there.

"I didn't know him," she says. "He is a government official. Every day I tried to get a card to get humanitarian aid, but I couldn't get it. He saw me and said he could get me one if I came with him one evening. So I went...".

International Women's Day: Women live in inhumane conditions in the DRC - DRC Congo
Gisele Dorika, 18, from Rugari in Rutshuru territory, in the labour ward before giving birth at the MSF-supported Kanyaruchinya health centre, north of Goma, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, 5 January 2024.
Philémon Barbier

When Gisèle told him she was pregnant, the man told her he would marry her "when the war is over" and take care of the child when it is six. In the meantime, he helps out a little by buying nappies and lotions for the baby.

"I want her to study a lot, to work and to be independent," she says.

Today, despite the daily difficulties, Gisèle feels safe because her tent is next to her parents, although her mother, Espérance, says that "almost every night there are bullets crackling".