Congo, Democratic Republic of

Last Updated 8 December 2023

Extremely rich in natural resources and with a population of over 108 million, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC; also Congo-Kinshasa) has been wracked by civil conflict and massive human rights abuses for decades. The country’s population is made up of more than 200 African ethnic groups, its official language is French, and its four national languages are Lingala, Swahili, Kituba, and Tshiluba. Estimates about the DRC’s religious demography vary heavily, however, the CIA World Factbook estimates that 29.9% of the population are Roman Catholic, 26.7% Protestant, 36.5% belong to other Christian denominations, 2.8% Kimbanguist, 1.3% Muslim , 1.2% belong to other belief groups, including syncretic sects and indigenous beliefs. Approximately 1.3% of the population are thought to be non-religious.1;

Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The Constitution explicitly respects “the right to freedom of thought, of conscience and of religion” (Art. 22) as well as “right to manifest their religion or their convictions” (ibid) and “right to freedom of expression”(Art. 23). Furthermore, Art. 13 prohibits discriminatory measures resulting “from the law or from an act of the executive” on the grounds of religion, family origin, social condition, residence, opinion or political convictions, belonging to a certain race, to an ethnicity, to a tribe or to a cultural or linguistic minority.2;

However, due to the manipulation of democratic processes by political elites, “citizens are unable to freely exercise basic civil liberties”. Armed conflict in the DRC Congo (formerly “Zaire” until 1997) continues to violate fundamental human rights, especially in Eastern regions where the conflict between rebel groups and militias and the government is on-going.3;

Conflict and political hegemony

The DRC has been embroiled in a series of ongoing conflicts since the 1990s. In 1997 – following the 1994 Rwandan genocide and subsequently the massive influx of refugees from Uganda and Rwanda – ethnic strife and civil war toppled the government of independence leader Mobutu Sese Seko. The rebellion against Mobutu’s 32-year regime was led by Laurent Kabila who was then challenged by another internal insurrection backed by Uganda and Rwanda; Angola, Chad, Namibia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe contrastingly supported Laurent Kabila. In 2001, Kabila was assassinated and his son Joseph was made head of state. In 2002 the new president was successful in negotiating the withdrawal of Rwandan soldiers from East DRC with the support of troops from Chad, Angola and Zimbabwe. Two months later he signed the Pretoria Accord to end the fighting and establish a government of national unity.4

Especially in the East, home to a multitude of dispersed populations, the DRC experiences violence by numerous militias to this day. The UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) has been working as a peacekeeping mission in the area since 1999.5 In 2009, the government signed a peace deal with the Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a primarily ethnic Tutsi rebel force. Efforts to integrate the CNDP into the Congolese military failed, resulting in their defection and the establishment of the Rwandan backed armed group M23, named after the failed 23 March 2009 peace deal.6

Fighting between the M23 and the DRC government led to major internal displacement and human rights abuses before M23 was pushed into Rwanda and Uganda by a United Nations led offensive in 2013. The DRC continues to struggle with violence committed by other armed militias such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, the Islamic State-affiliated Allied Democratic Forces and various mai mai groups. In 2022, M23 fighters reappeared which complicated the relations between the DRC and Rwanda that had been formally normalized before and the East of the DRC remains highly unstable. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that particularly in the 21st century, the proliferation of mining of metals and rare earth minerals in the DRC, essential for the advanced electronics industry, have further complicated the situation as transnational actors such as multinational corporations and local militias “have become more incentivized to get involved in the Congolese conflict”.7

On a national level, elections were delayed from October 2016 against the constitution and despite Kabila being barred from a third term in office. Failure to hold elections spurred street protests by opposition activists. Elections eventually took place in December 2018. Officials declared opposition candidate Félix Tshisekedi the winner in early 2019, but Joseph Kabila resisted the results at first. Tshisekedi was inaugurated in January 2019, even though the election results were disputed due to various issues and irregularities.8

Education and children’s rights

According to the DRC’s Constitution, education should be free and accessible to all people, free from discrimination (Art. 45). National education establishments may provide, in cooperation with the religious authorities, education conforming to minor pupils’ religious convictions, if parents demand it.9; However, in practice religion pervades the education system.

The education system in the “negotiated statehood” of the DRC is hybrid – both state and faith-based organizations (FBOs) play an important role. Due to incomplete decentralization, the boundaries of responsibilities between them are unclear as religious networks have a state mandate to manage faith-based public schools funded by the state but also operate their own competing private schools. This results in multiple parallel administrative systems as the FBOs distribute the salaries of many teachers, can create schools, locally recruit staff without state control, and influence the Ministry of Education, contributing to the intransparent system and facilitating power games. A document in collaboration of the Global Education Monitoring Report and Cambridge Education states that, “religious networks are part of fragmented ecosystems where the State is just one of the many actors of the education system”. In theory, state schools are state-owned but managed and operated by FOBs, mainly the Catholic and Protestant Church (and to some extent, other groups such as the Islamic or the Kimbanguist network) despite Mobutu’s attempt of ending the religious domination in education that had prevailed since missionary activities in colonial times. However, especially the Catholic Church is omnipresent in the country and even reaches remote locations where the state has little or no control, and the poor economic situation during Mobutu’s regime made it necessary to formally include religious networks in the education system.10

Formally, academic freedom is not restricted in the DRC and the curricula are not strongly politicized, as the state fails to fulfill its normative role due to the fragmented education system dominated by FBOs. Still, according to the aforementioned document, “schools are an important tool of evangelization and an efficient way to attract more believers” and the creation of new schools is often based on church networks or strategies of expansion “rather than needs for education infrastructures”. Most concerningly for the international right to freedom of religion or belief, “children have to adhere to the faith to attend school, and religious courses and activities are prioritized over education” and the state lacks control over educational content and adherence of the curriculum.11

Despite the formally unrestricted academic freedom, political events and protests are often violently repressed. Freedom House Reports that “armed groups have also attacked schools, preventing children from accessing education” and that “payment for grades, including sexual exploitation of students, is common”.12

Family, community and society

According to most recent estimates there are more than 6.2 million internally displaced people within the DRC. On top of this, the DRC holds more than half a million refugees from neighboring countries and over 1 million Congolese have sought asylum elsewhere.13,outside%20refugee%20camps%20and%20settlements.

According to Freedom House, “sexual and gender based violence is common.” Especially members of militias but also government soldiers have been involved in rape, sexual abuse, and abduction of girls resulting in forced marriage and “convictions for these offenses remain rare.”14

Wives are obliged to obey their husbands according to Article 444 of the Congolese family code and are under their husband’s legal guardianship. Despite the minimum age for marriage being 18, marriage of women under 18 is common. Additionally, abortion is illegal except to save the pregnant woman’s life.15;

LGBTI+ rights

According to Article 66 of the Constitution, everyone has the duty to treat fellow citizens with respect, reciprocal tolerance, and without discrimination.16 The Constitution does not explicitly criminalize homosexuality and the age of consent for same-sex relations is the same as that of opposite-sex relationships. Same-sex marriages, however, are not recognized and there have been several attempts to criminalize homosexual relations and to prohibit LGBTI+ rights organizations since 2010.17 Even though homosexuality is not directly criminalized, Freedom House reports that, “LGBT+ people are marginalized; civil society groups that explicitly mention LGBT+ issues in their constitutions have been denied official registration.”18 Since the country has become predominantly Christian, sexuality and LGBTI+ issues have been a taboo, making it considerably understudied. This is despite some research from colonial times are testament of LGBTI+ people in various provinces of the modern DRC. The UNDP reported in 2022 that “although considerable progress has been made in health programmes in recent years, attitudes and acts of non-acceptance, intolerance, discrimination and violence towards LGBTI people in Congolese communities still persist.” Especially because laws are mostly silent and incomplete, they reinforce intolerant attitudes toward LGBTI+ people and make it difficult for politicians to publicly advocate for more inclusive legislation.19

These deeply ingrained conservative cultural norms stigmatize and silence LGBTI+ people, who, despite Congolese criminal law being mostly silent about sexual relations between consenting adults of the same sex, may face prosecution under “indecency” laws if they are openly gay and fear being ostracized by; Article 176 of the Penal Code, for example, does not explicitly mention LGBTI+ people but its provision of the prosecution of engagement of activities against public decency has been “used as a basis by law enforcement officers for, among other things, arbitrary arrests, extortion and blackmail”, according to a UNDP report.21;; Still, in major cities, there are people visibly identifying as LGBTI+, especially in the night life.22 More explicitly, though, Law 09/001 on the protection of the child from 10 January 2009 prohibits the adoption of a child by a homosexual person or couple, a pedophile or a person suffering from psychological disorders.23 “L’adoption d’un enfant par une personne ou un couple homosexuel, un pédophile ou une personne souffrant de troubles psychiques est interdite.”

While there are no explicit protective laws for LGBTI+ people in the DRC, the country has committed to several international agreements to protect the rights of individuals.24 According to Article 215 of the constitution of the DRC, international agreements and treaties have an authority superior to laws.25 Additionally, in theory, Law 08/011 on the protection of people living with HIV/AIDS and affected people from 14 July 2008 recognizes the rights of men who have sex with men as a vulnerable group and states that the assumed or proven serological status should not be an obstacle to education.26 In practice, however, LGBTI+ people face high levels of stigma and discrimination regarding access to health, education, employment, housing, etc. and face hate speech.27

Especially since Uganda’s strict Anti-Homosexuality Laws from 2023 and in light of the Congolese general elections scheduled for December 2023, leaders in the DRC have been suggesting to follow the example of Uganda.28 Also Kenya, Ghana, Namibia, Niger, Tanzania have tightened their anti-homosexuality laws in 2023 alone.29

In 2023, following local protests against the distribution of pride-month themed bags after a conference, the Superior Council for Audiovisual and Communication (CSAC ) of the DRC issued a press release announcing that media promoting LGBTI+ content will be punished heavily. Kinshasa Journalist Yves Nsiala called these measures illegal as “there is no law prohibiting homosexuality in the DRC. Nevertheless, the CSAC has taken care to communicate this warning to the media, in order to protect local sensitivities in terms of societal values.”30

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are guaranteed by the constitution and the DRC does have media pluralism. However, the ongoing conflict between the government and the M23 militia in the East of the country impaired the media and inclined the parliament in 2023 to pass a new media law. Congolese media are often launched and instrumentalized by politicians to gain influence, state media cannot be described as independent, and militias, religious groups, politicians, and other authorities often pressure journalists in their sphere of influence.31;

According to Reporters Without Borders, journalists fear being “targeted on the basis of their ethnic or community affiliation, and they are exposed to reprisals in connection with their work” and “arrest, intimidation, physical violence, media closures, media outlets getting ransacked, and murder.” There have been multiple reports of security forces threatening, detaining, and assaulting journalists critical of government officials but these security forces enjoy immunity. The conflict in Eastern Congo is “off-limits for the media” and self-censorship is common. Under Tshisekedi’s tenure, repression of journalists has reportedly expanded.32

Freedom of Assembly

Although the constitution guarantees Freedom of Religion or Belief, some religious institutions have been violently targeted in conflict areas by rebel groups. Protests mobilized along religious lines such as protests by the Catholic Church against election results in 2019 or religious autonomy movements were violently repressed by the government.33

Many NGOs operate in the DRC and freedom of assembly is generally guaranteed by the constitution, yet, protesters are subject to “arrests, beatings, and lethal violence” and especially human rights activists face detention, arbitrary arrest, and harassment.34


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23 “L’adoption d’un enfant par une personne ou un couple homosexuel, un pédophile ou une personne souffrant de troubles psychiques est interdite.”

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