Expert Opinion

IDPs’ family cohesion at stake in eastern DRC

Today, as we celebrate Universal Children’s Day, we take the opportunity to think about how displacement affects young people’s family lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Our colleagues, Anaïs and Melanie, researched the topic in March in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu, home to 1,066,800 internally displaced people (IDPs)[1], many of whom are children. Here they share some of their findings.

Why is it important to understand how displacement affects family dynamics in eastern DRC?

All of the IDPs we met cited the family as a crucial source of support in confronting the daily challenges of displacement. Members listen to each other’s sorrow and concerns in a situation in which much of what was familiar to them is gone. They work together in the fields, sharing their tasks and their income in their efforts to get by.

Displacement, however, can change family structure and dynamics in many ways. The most obvious, of course, is the separation of family members during their flight, which is often a time of panic and confusion. Fathers may flee in one direction, mothers and children in another. Separation may be the most visible consequence, but displacement also affects more subtle and less visible dynamics that have an impact on how families deal with their harsh daily realities.

What was your most striking finding in terms of how IDPs’ family lives change?

The issue that came up most often in our discussions was the way in which traditional roles and responsibilities change during displacement. Many men struggle to maintain their role at the head of the household, as main breadwinner and decision-maker. Some of the displaced men we met said that for various reasons they found it more difficult than their wives to find work in their place of refuge. In their efforts to make ends meet, family members redistribute daily tasks and many women take on responsibility for earning money, in addition to their traditional caring role in the household.

Niyonkuru, whom we met in North Kivu, fled his home with his wife and five children two years ago. He teaches in a nearby town, but doesn’t earn enough to meet his family’s needs, so his wife has started to do daily wage labour.

The repercussions of such shifting roles can be profound. Taken in tandem with a lack of intimacy and resources, they put significant strain on relationships within the family. We were told of members becoming estranged and avoiding each other as mutual understanding breaks down, husbands and wives fighting more often and an increased risk of domestic violence.

What has changed most for children?

The most striking thing we heard from some of the young IDPs we interviewed was that they had lost respect for their parents, particularly their fathers, and distanced themselves from them. Children see their parents struggling, and sometimes failing, in their role as carers, providers and figures of authority, and some appeared resentful at having had to drop out of school to help out with household tasks and earning money. Girls are often the first to have to do so.

It does not always have to be this way. Niyonkuru insists that all his children get an education. It is a priority for him, he said, because his father made every effort to ensure he went to school when they were displaced during his childhood. This has allowed him to find work as a teacher now that, as head of his own household, he has been displaced too.

Niyonkuru’s children, however, are the exception rather than the rule. In addition to coping with the trauma of displacement and the violence that often triggers it at such a young age, many are obliged to mature early. They are pushed to take on adult roles or establish a degree of independence before their time, in order to reduce the burden on their parents. In some cases this has led to early marriages.

Given that DRC’s children are its future, what could be more important that to focus on the plight of those displaced, who number many hundreds of thousands, and to try to ensure that they have as normal an upbringing as possible in the most trying and difficult of circumstances.

What role, if any, does the extended family play during displacement?  

Some of the IDPs we talked to said the presence of extended family members was a consideration when deciding where to flee to. Relatives may be in a vulnerable position themselves, but still provide an important safety net for a newly displaced family, helping to fulfil their most basic needs - a roof over their head, a plot of land to cultivate or a loan. IDPs unable to join extended family members when they flee still try to keep in contact and visit each other.

We also found that solidarity, which can be a lifeline for IDPs, extends beyond the family. They are hosted by friends, neighbours, church group members and in some cases even strangers. Niyonkuru has been displaced three times, and welcomed by different people each time, both by complete strangers and family friends. When all said and done, coping with displacement is a community, rather than just a family affair.


For more information on how displacement affects family dynamics in eastern DRC, read our latest thematic paper, part of our wider project on resilience and multiple displacement in the country as a whole.

Names have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.

[1] OCHA, September 2015