Ngoma* is deaf, so she didn’t hear the group of boys as they snuck up behind her on a road in her hometown of Matadi, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“They ambushed me, then dragged me to a secluded area and abused me,” she told UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency. After the attack, she didn’t know where to turn. “They took advantage of my disability to commit their crime, going so far as to make me a mother,” she said.
Ngoma gave birth at just 15 years old – she was still a child. But she was also determined not to let the violence she was subjected to interrupt her future chances in life. “I came back after giving birth to continue my schooling, despite what I lived through.”
Ngoma’s child is living with her parents in another city, while she finishes her studies at the Espérance school – a facility for people with a hearing and/or speech impairment. This year, her class is being taught comprehensive sexuality education, through a programme implemented by the Ministry of Primary and Vocational Education at four schools in the provinces of Kinshasa and Kongo Central. The programme also covers holistic care for survivors.
“We are being taught life skills, including lessons on sexual and reproductive health, personal hygiene and gender-based violence,” she said. “If I had learned all this a few years ago, I would have known to quickly go to the hospital after being raped.”
Advocacy for awareness
Reports of sexual violence and coercion are soaring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as the country grapples with escalating conflict, economic instability and recurrent climate crises. Globally, people with a disability are more likely to be abused than people without a disability. Father Jean-Jacques Diafuka, who heads the Espérance school, said “Some people take advantage of their disability to mistreat, exploit and abuse them.”
But through this UNFPA-supported initiative, Ngoma learned how to report abusers and how the police handle cases of violence. She also decided not to remain silent about her experience, instead helping to spread the word to her fellow students so they would know how and where to report and recover from abuse.
And Ngoma didn’t stop there: She insisted the programme be extended to more remote communities of Matadi, where many young people are not in school and have little access to such information.
Thanks to her advocacy, a toll-free hotline was launched in January 2021, run by the Ministry of Gender, which connects callers to counsellors. As of August 2023, more than 1,400 people had called in and received help through the hotline.
Teachers at the Espérance school followed a nine-month national training course on comprehensive sexuality education, which was supported by UNFPA and with funding from Norway. In the pilot phase of September to October last year, 30 teachers from the Kinshasa and Kongo Central provinces completed the course.
“We are very moved by this considerable support,” said Father Diafuka. “Not only have our teachers been trained, but we also received around a hundred manuals on sexual and reproductive health, as well as guides for teachers, booklets on personal hygiene and menstruation management kits.”
He added that the training should be extended to judicial and police staff to better assist people living with a disability in reporting gender-based violence – and that the lessons be aimed at boys as well as girls.
Supporting vulnerable young people
The comprehensive sexuality education classes also teach young people how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections and unintended and child pregnancies.
The country’s adolescent birth rate is among the highest in the world. Adolescent pregnancies can lead to girls not being able to finish school, which can obstruct their employment opportunities; they can also cause debilitating conditions like obstetric fistula, as a young girl’s body is typically not yet ready to deliver a child.
Included in comprehensive sexuality curricula are messages about human rights, gender equality and healthy relationships – critical in a country with the highest intimate partner violence rate in the world.
UNFPA promotes the human rights and inclusion of persons with a disability, particularly women and young people, through its dedicated We Decide programme. These initiatives are tailored to varying country contexts to broaden access to sexual and reproductive health services, information and education, so each person has the opportunity to make the right choice for their own body.
*Name changed for privacy and protection
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).