KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Jennifa was 13 when a man said he loved her. He is the father of her 2-year-old son, but she remembers him only by a few details. His name was Mamadou, and he was a Mbororo herder from Sudan.
When they met, Mamadou promised Jennifa a better life, more than her mother, who sells cow meat, and her father, a farmer, could afford. It was an offer too good to pass up. Four months later, she was pregnant and out of school. Soon after, they were married. Three months after the birth of their child, Mamadou left her, with a child she couldn’t afford.
“He told me that he was first going to return to Sudan, so I went back to my parents’ house,” says Jennifa, now 15, who asked to be identified only by her first name for fear of stigma. “Since then, I haven’t heard from him.”
Locals and authorities say this is becoming a common story for girls younger than 18 in the northeastern DRC city of Kisangani. It often begins with the promise of a better economic life, then ends in pregnancy and early marriage. They blame the Mbororo herders, an indigenous nomadic community from various African countries who for centuries have immigrated periodically into northeastern DRC in search of pasture for their livestock.
In the past, their presence has spawned tension and negative perceptions from local residents, who are mostly farmers. They have accused the Mbororo herders of seizing land and destroying crops and water sources, according to a report by Conciliation Resources, a London-based independent organization. The herders also have come under fire for allegedly infiltrating a growing local meat market and selling their meat at cut-rate prices.
Exploitation of underage girls is the latest reason for tension.
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Antoine Musibasiba, area chief of the Lubuya Bera sector, confirms the increase in cases of sexual exploitation. The Mbororo herders’ participation in the meat market has meant more interaction with local communities, he says, and facilitated the increase in exploitation cases.
But Mustapha Hamadi, a Mbororo herdsman who migrated from Sudan and has been living in Kisangani since 2016, thinks of it as a question of perception and cultural differences. Local communities, he says, have always negatively perceived the Mbororos.
The 25-year-old says it’s not unusual for herders to take an interest in local girls as many of them leave their wives in their home countries, while others are unmarried when they arrive in DRC. He takes issue with herders who flee, leaving girls to fend for the children alone. “It hurts me too much when we learn that they make girls pregnant and leave,” he says.
Abuse and violence against children in DRC are widespread, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF. Sexual exploitation is common, too. The agency reports that between January and June 2020, it assisted 2,018 children in DRC who had been sexually exploited. Of these, 1,999 were girls, according to the United States Department of State.
The country’s poverty rate — nearly 80%, according to 2021 data from the International Monetary Fund — has only increased women’s vulnerability to sexual violence and exploitation.
In Kisangani, authorities are aware of the increased exploitation of young girls by Mbororo herders, but it’s difficult to prosecute as parents rarely report the incidents, says Motema Likolo Michel, head officer at the police station in Batiamaduka, a Kisangani suburb.
Parents often reach an amicable agreement with perpetrators. That was the case for Jennifa, who says her parents threatened to report Mamadou to the police when they found out she was pregnant, which prompted a negotiation. Mamadou offered them a goat and an undisclosed amount of money as an apology. He even promised to marry Jennifa, and her parents yielded. No one asked Jennifa if she wanted to marry Mamadou.
Jennifa’s experience echoes that of Sidoni, who also asked to be identified only by her first name. As an apology, the Mbororo herder who got her pregnant offered her parents a goat and money, which they accepted. For fear of stigma, she married him.
“Today, he has gone back home and left me with the child. I don’t know how to move on with my life,” says Sidoni, 16.
According to DRC law, it’s illegal to marry or have sex with children, boys and girls, younger than 18. Parents who force their children into marriages could receive up to 12 years of hard labor and a fine.
But some parents marry off their underage daughters to protect them from the stigma of being unmarried and pregnant, according to a report by Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian and medical organization.
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The Mbororo herders’ nomadic lifestyle also makes it difficult to prosecute any who are offenders. César Luna would have liked to report the sexual exploitation of her daughters, ages 15 and 17. But by the time she found out, she says, the herders responsible had already returned to their home countries, leaving her daughters out of school and with children to fend for.
“Today I don’t know how to take care of [my daughters] or my grandsons,” says Luna. “I don’t have a paying job.”
The sexual exploitation of underage girls is already affecting their school retention rates in the region, says Mashamba Okoto, director at the Batiamaduka school. At the beginning of 2021, “a total of 486 girls were enrolled [in the Batiamaduka school], but by June, that number had dropped to 208, as many girls had fallen pregnant or had married,” says Okoto.
There are no laws governing the migration of Mbororos into Tshopo province, where Kisangani is the capital, says Jean Pierre Litema, interim minister of interior and security. Many arrive to sell and graze their cattle. He admits that authorities struggle to prosecute perpetrators when parents don’t report but says they are working on a better solution.
The exact number of Mbororos living in the region is unknown as they’re undocumented, says Roger Bangwale, administrative secretary of LubuyaBera. “They come and leave when they want, when they don’t need to be here anymore, without respecting any norms,” Bangwale says.
In the meantime, Hamadi, the Mbororo herder, urges girls who have been abandoned with children to remain hopeful and wait. “Maybe they’ll come back here again,” he says.
But Sidoni has responsibilities that can’t wait. To make money, the young mother sells grilled cassavas on the roadside near her parents’ house. She hopes to return to school once her 1-year-old son is older.