TACOMA, Washington — The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country located in Central Africa, has a population of about 86.8 million people. Due to years of horrific war and political turmoil, DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world with a little more than 70% of the population surviving on less than $1.90 per day. Women make less than the average income and struggle to provide for their families. Women in DRC also struggle with many health problems as a result of poor healthcare infrastructure and a lack of financial and government support, causing women’s life expectancy to be approximately 63 years of age. Here are the biggest issues affecting women’s health in the DRC.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)
More than 400,000 adults in DRC are infected with AIDS/HIV. Females are disproportionately affected with 71.99% of the infected being women. Women with AIDS/HIV between the ages of 15 and 34 have more than doubled as of 2018, as 4,100 new cases were found, while men only had 1000 new cases discovered in the same year. Women also had a lower treatment rate with 58% receiving care, while 73% of men had HIV treatment. As of 2018, more than 16,000 of the population died from some form of AIDS. Other common STDs include chlamydia, gonorrhea, bacterial vaginosis and genital herpes.
Sexual violence and rape are significant issues for women in DRC, and a major reason why so many women suffer from some sort of STD. In 2019 alone, there were more than 1,400 cases reported of sexual violence, and over 50% of women in DRC has experienced sexual violence.
Malaria is a prevalent cause of death in DRC, with DRC being the 2nd country with the most malaria cases and deaths. The DRC has 55% of malaria cases in all of Central Africa, and pregnant women are one of the most affected groups of people, with 3.5 million pregnancies are at risk yearly. This infection can be deadly to pregnant women because it affects their immune system, which in turn makes it harder for their body to fight the infection. As such, malaria can cause severe problems to pregnant women like premature delivery, maternal anemia, fetal loss and even death.
Trauma and mental illness are consistent problems in DRC due to the effects of war. Women are disproportionally affected due to the high rates of sexual violence and rape. On average, around 48 females are sexually assaulted every hour, and those who survive are scarred by the experience. Common mental illnesses in the DRC include schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, manic episodes and bipolar disorder.
Unfortunately, there is almost no budget for mental health in DRC, so mental healthcare institutions are private ones. There are only about six hospitals for mental health improvement in the whole country, and those who live in remote, rural areas have low to no access due to a lack of transportation and the long distances. In two of the institutions, about 80% of the patients are 40 and under, and for every male patient, there were 1.02 female patients, half without any means of employment.
Childbirth and Pregnancy issues
Due to the lack of proper healthcare in DRC, childbirth and pregnancy complications are not uncommon in the country. Studies show about 21,000 women die annually due to pregnancy and childbirth complications. Additionally, more than 100,000 newborns die soon after birth each year.
Complications due to these issues include obstetric fistula, which usually occurs in young girls whose bodies are not prepared for childbirth due to underdevelopment. Girls under 16 years of age are at the greatest risk for obstetric fistula. Fistula can also be a consequence of sexual assault. Many women face prejudice because of this issue and might not seek help. The World Relief DRC is running programs and campaigns to address this stigma and support women and girls suffering from fistula.
The lack of an adequate healthcare system and proper sanitation can also lead to deadly infections like toxoplasmosis, Ebola and respiratory infections, among others. Unplanned pregnancy is also dangerous as many women seek unsafe abortions that can lead to severe complications and even death.
Vulnerable groups’ and women’s health in the DRC needs to be addressed to resolve these gender injustices and preventable health complications. Organizations like the World Relief DRC are working to address these issues, but more needs to be done. Humanitarian organizations, NGOs and the DRC’s government need to work together to support women’s health in the DRC.