"What we saw and heard was shocking, heartbreaking and sobering," Edem Wosornu, director of operations and advocacy in the U.N. Department of Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters. "We have seen that in the past 18 months, the situation in eastern Congo has deteriorated to an alarming extent."
Wosornu is just back from the region, following a mission with officials from several U.N. agencies and NGOs.
She said 8 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance in North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri provinces, where scores of armed groups terrorize villages. Overall, more than 26 million Congolese across the country need food assistance. In a country with huge numbers of displaced persons, an additional million people have been forcibly displaced since the start of this year.
"This is not business as usual. This is an acute crisis on top of an already super-sized one," said Gabriella Waaijman, humanitarian director for Save the Children Global, who was also part of the mission. "And behind every one of these staggeringly large numbers are individuals enduring immense levels of suffering."
This year, humanitarians have been able to assist about 1.4 million people in Congo but are hampered by insecurity, a lack of access on poor roads and a huge funding shortfall. The United Nations has appealed for $2.3 billion but received only $764 million so far, with just a few months left in the year.
Wosornu said sexual violence is being perpetrated "on a massive and distressing scale."
"In the first six months of 2023 alone, more than 35,000 survivors have sought access to services for gender-based violence across the three provinces alone," she said, adding that the real number is likely higher as survivors often do not report sexual crimes.
The U.N. has warned that such violations may amount to atrocity crimes.
Women and girls are at particular risk from armed men when they search for food, water and firewood in areas around camps for the displaced. They are also often forced to engage in what the U.N. calls "survival sex," including inside the camps for internally displaced people.
Wosornu said the stories she heard from victims and their families in eastern Congo were "absolutely horrific."
"Transactional sex at 20 cents is what is being perpetrated in the camps," she said, adding that the U.N. and its partners are working on prevention and offering psychosocial and medical support to women who have been raped.
Unfortunately, funding for gender-based violence is often the least funded in emergencies, Wosornu said, at around 5%. While protection programs only receive about 10% of donor funds.