Democratic Republic of Congo


The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has claimed over five million lives since 1996, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II. While mass rape has been a feature of many civil and interstate conflicts, the violence in eastern DRC features unique and disturbing characteristics. In 2007, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes called rape in the DRC, "the worst in the world."

Tens of thousands of women have been raped or sexually mutilated. The uncommonly brutal nature of the crimes leads to a host of health problems for survivors: pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease (including HIV), and traumatic fistula – a condition that leaves women incontinent of urine, stool, or both. Many women and their children are abandoned by their husbands and communities and become homeless and destitute.

HHI's work is focused on identifying prevention and mitigation tactics that can protect Congolese women's health and human rights at the individual, community, and international levels.


Jocelyn Kelly is currently in eastern DRC working on two projects for the Women in War program. The first examines which factors – societal, financial and health-related – influence men’s behaviors towards survivors of sexual violence and to identify the barriers towards acceptance and reintegration of survivors into their families and communities after rape. The findings from this project will inform evidence-based interventions that can prevent rejection of survivors in the future.

The second project will take a Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach to bring together Congolese and international partners to conduct qualitative research that will more effectively examine how communities are affected by complex related to protracted instability and violence.


  • Addressing Root Causes of Mass Rape
    In partnership with UN-OCHAOpen Society Institute, and Oxfam AmericaHHI research addresses the root causes and consequences of gender-based violence in eastern DRC. Recent research and recommendations by HHI investigators have shaped international policy and informed the humanitarian community's understanding of why mass atrocities occur. Particular investigations focus on:
    • Documenting survivors' needs for medical, psychosocial, and livelihood support;
    • Assessing community perceptions of sexual assault;
    • Evaluating the effectiveness of local and international service providers;
    • Tracking militia activity and understanding perpetrator motivation.
  • Capacity-Building for Local Clinics In May 2007, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) launched a pilot program to build the clinical capacity of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo. Although Panzi is a full service hospital, it is the region's main treatment center for victims of sexual abuse seeking surgical and medical treatment. The hospital accepts 10 to 12 new rape victims daily, and it is not uncommon for there to be 450 sexual assault victims admitted to the hospital at any given time. HHI's program, directed by Dr. Julia VanRooyen, focuses on training hospital personnel in complex pelvic repair procedures by sending U.S. gynecologic surgeons to work side-by-side with Congolese physicians.


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Survivor's Song

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Men with guns


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Just Here Suffering

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Damages of War


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Looking Horror in the Face

HHI researchers don't flinch in examination of Congo rape crisis
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Talking Terror

Researchers probe the roots of "crimes against humanity"

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Michael VanRooyen

Rebuilding places that peace abandoned
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Jocelyn Kelly

Seeking the whole picture of Congo violence

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Jennifer Scott

Being there for atrocity’s survivors 

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Local Partners Critical to HHI’s Work

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Eastern Congo Nexus for Many Conflicts



More information on HHI's research and on gender based violence in the DRC can be found on Research Coordinator Jocelyn Kelly's blog.


To see a list of articles about our research in the DRC, please click here.


Michael VanRooyen, MD, MPH, FACEP
Director of Women in War Program, Director of Harvard Humanitarian Initiative

Jocelyn Kelly, MS
Women in War Research Coordinator, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative

Susan Bartels, MD, MPH
Department of Emergency Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard University

Sadia Hader, MD, MPH
Division Director of Family Planning, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Jennifer Leaning, MD, SMH 
Faculty, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative

Jen Scott, MD, MBA
Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Julia VanRooyen, MD
Visiting Scientist, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative