LONDON, United Kingdom — Growing up in Africa, Justine Gommis Tossou became all too familiar with the daily tragedies of poverty and the devastating effects of violence. “I was unfortunately exposed at a very young age to the negative effects of ethnic conflicts and poverty on vulnerable populations, more specifically women and children on the African continent,” said Tossou in an interview with Oxfam. She is now the Oxfam Country Director for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of Africa’s poorest and most desperate nations. Tossou’s journey into humanitarian work in the DRC developed organically. “As soon as the opportunity arose, I benefited from training and specialized in public health to be able to fulfill my passion and my commitment to contribute to the improvement of people’s lives,” she said during the interview.
For decades, the DRC has been entangled in a humanitarian crisis. Over the past two years, the conflict has escalated, with more than 100 armed groups fighting for territorial and resource control in 2022. As a result, more than 6.7 million people have fled their homes, causing one of the largest displacement crises in Africa.
Consequently, full farming seasons have been missed, causing severe food shortages and impacting more than 13 million people, as they now face acute hunger. Since 2018, the DRC has also been battling with the second most severe Ebola crisis ever witnessed in the world. The virus has spread from four to 19 health zones, emerging even in areas that armed groups control. Amidst this broken landscape, Tossou’s humanitarian work in the DRC offers solace and hope for those in need.
Tossou’s Impact in the DRC
No one understands the positive impact of humanitarian assistance more than those directly affected and in need. On a recent field visit to Kalehe, Tossou recalls the heartfelt expressions of gratitude from those who received their help. She reflects, “Listening to an elderly gentleman who had to move to Kalemie due to conflict-driven violence expresses his gratitude for being alive and secure, despite witnessing brutalities inflicted on his dear ones.”
In Kalehe, the collaboration between the DRC Humanitarian Fund and partner AVUDS has provided temporary shelter, drinking water, food and sanitary pads for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Tossou is proud of the difference their humanitarian work in the DRC can make in people’s lives. “We were able to reach more than 18,000 people who now have access to sufficient drinkable water thanks to the supply structures built or rehabilitated in the area. In addition, we have trained 80 people from women’s forums and protection committees to contribute to change,” she proudly stated.
However, as disease and conflict continue to spread, the number of IDPs rises, and “there is still a lot to do.” Beyond aid for physical ailments such as hunger and disease, Tossou highlights the need “to provide comprehensive aid that not only supports survival and resilience but also the psychological trauma that affects the lives of vulnerable populations.”
Although Oxfam’s humanitarian work in the DRC has reached thousands of people, Tossou explains, “Our challenges are enormous and include diverse crises, difficult access to conflict zones, low level of funding compared to the needs we see in the country, specific needs of the most vulnerable populations such as women, children, the elderly and disabled in terms of protection.”
Unfortunately, it is often women and children who suffer the most in these cases as they are vulnerable in the hands of armed groups. In November 2023, the violence in DRC escalated further, prompting Heather Kerr, the DRC Country Director, to state, “Eastern DRC has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for women and children,” calling it “a protection crisis” as gender-based violence continues to increase at an alarming rate.
To tackle these challenges, Tossou hopes to “strengthen the resilience of affected populations to help them rebuild their lives” while sustaining the humanitarian work they have already achieved in the DRC. However, she also stresses the need for “governmental authorities to create an enabling environment and equitable access to basic social services” so they can work with local populations and authorities to ensure the impact of their humanitarian work in the DRC is sustainable. For example, Kerr highlighted the International Rescue Committee (IRC) partnership with local NGO partners to protect children and provide physical as well as psychological support for survivors of gender-based violence.
The DRC is one of the five poorest nations in the world, with 62% of the population, about 60 million Congolese, living on less than $2.15 a day. This makes humanitarian work in the DRC crucial to their survival. In fact, humanitarians are often their only hope. As a result, Tossou wants “to honor all the humanitarians who strive to meet the growing needs within DRC.”
The Importance of Humanitarian Workers in the DRC
When asked about her message to the world about World Humanitarian Day, Tossou responded, “My message is to continue to put the needs of the people affected at the center of all our actions, our discussions and our decisions, to give them a voice in the search for solutions and follow-up and finally, to take their feedback into account for effective humanitarian action.”
Tossou, along with other humanitarian workers in the DRC, are heroes who have dedicated their lives to reaching those most affected with basic necessities such as food, water and sanitary pads while working with the government and other NGOs to support populations and increase their resilience. Without heroes like Tossou, thousands of lives would have been lost due to the violence and poverty in the DRC.
– Alice Isola