Canada has committed nearly $100-million to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to support women's economic empowerment, protect street children and provide humanitarian assistance – one of the first major funding announcements since the Liberal government unveiled its new feminist foreign-aid policy in June.
International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau is in the Central African country this week visiting Canadian taxpayer-funded foreign-aid projects, including hospitals and health centres that offer sexual and reproductive health services, such as the morning-after pill and birth control, to victims of gender-based violence. Ms. Bibeau said she was shaken by what she witnessed at the centres, where she met survivors of brutal sexual assault.
"What I've heard is very violent. I even saw a woman who was not able to walk. That was, I can tell you, horrible … She was assaulted by many men … that she wasn't able to walk," Ms. Bibeau said in an interview after visiting the Mugunga Community Centre and Kyshero hospital in Goma.
Ms. Bibeau said it was especially hard to hear stories from children, recalling how she met a six-year-old girl who had survived sexual violence. The hospital and community centre provide critical support to women and girls immediately after rape and other sexual assault.
"If they get to the centre within 72 hours after being assaulted, they will be able to provide basic medical services against HIV/AIDS and also to avoid a pregnancy … in addition to any other medical and physical assistance they may need."
While the centre and hospital receive funding under an existing Canadian project, Ms. Bibeau also announced money for new projects in the DRC on Wednesday.
The minister said Canada will provide $97-million for the DRC to empower women with the skills and financial tools they need to support their communities and families, help protect more than 95,000 Congolese street children and provide life-saving humanitarian assistance to more than 578,000 people affected by conflict. The money comes from the government's existing international development budget. Ms. Bibeau said the funding is directly linked to the government's new feminist foreign-aid policy, which will ensure that at least 95 per cent of Canadian foreign aid helps improve the lives of women and girls by 2021-22.
In a sharp reorientation of Canada's foreign-aid strategy, the Trudeau government announced plans earlier this year to spend $650-million on global sexual and reproductive health and rights, which will support access to contraception and legal abortion. The funding will help fill a $600-million (U.S.) gap left by U.S. President Donald Trump's reinstatement of the so-called global gag rule prohibiting U.S. funding to international organizations that fail to disavow abortion.
Ms. Bibeau said the DRC is a prime example of a country where Canada's new feminist foreign-aid agenda – particularly its support for legal abortion services – will have to be handled carefully. Abortion is illegal in the DRC, unless it is necessary to save a woman's life, creating stigma around the service.
"In Canada, you are very interested in the abortion part, but if we want to be effective here, the idea is not to put the light specifically on that. We have to be more subtle," Ms. Bibeau said.
"The idea is not to put us and to put our partners who work in the field everyday in a delicate situation."
The DRC is in the midst of a political and economic crisis, as President Joseph Kabila clings to power after 16 years in office. His legal mandate ended last December and elections have been delayed. Protesters calling for Mr. Kabila to step down were shot dead by police in the capital of Kinshasa last year. In the eastern part of the country, armed groups continue to commit a wide range of abuses including executions, rape and other sexual violence.
The United States and European Union have called on the DRC to hold elections this year; Ms. Bibeau echoed that appeal Wednesday.
"I will take every opportunity to talk about the importance of having elections as soon as possible," Ms. Bibeau said. "People have to be able to trust their government if we want to see security."