New Community-Informed Approaches to Humanitarian Protection and Restraint: Women’s Agency in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The protection of civilians is a fundamental principle in humanitarian policy and practice, and continues to be a priority for many humanitarian organisations.

While protection strategies have traditionally been top-down, reactive, and often militaristic, recent approaches have increasingly focused on community-led and ‘bottom-up’ forms of protection, focusing on the self-protection strategies of civilians in contexts of insecurity and violent conflict.

Here, there is a progressive recognition that externally driven approaches are less efficient and sustainable than ones that are developed and led by the people most immediately concerned – the populations and communities that are the subjects of humanitarian interventions.

At the centre of these changes is the increasing attention given by some international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) to provide support for women’s groups in conflict-affected contexts. These approaches recognise that women are the primary holders of essential knowledge about the risks they face and as such are best placed to lead, identify and respond with protection strategies that are most effective for them and the wider community.

In recent years, there has been an increased focus on sexual and gender-based violence in DRC. Denis Mukwege’s 2018 Nobel Peace Prize to ‘end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict’ – though well intentioned – has served to perpetuate the dominant narratives in humanitarian, peacebuilding and development circles on women in eastern DRC as largely passive victims constrained by restrictive customary norms and culture.

Feminist scholar have critiqued the ‘victim’ narrative pointing out that these limit discussion ‘within narrow spaces of recognition‘, creating simplistic narratives of women’s experience and leave out other forms of structural violence that women face in conflict affected settings. Understanding the different ways women exercise agency to secure self-protection is therefore key to deepen our knowledge on women’s agency in protracted conflict contexts.

This multi-disciplinary project combined social science and arts and humanities methodologies to produce findings that aim to provide new understandings and tools to both communities and aid providers to protective measures. The research seeks to identify successful examples of local protection measures and generate methods for communicating these to other communities experiencing violence and to aid agencies. The use of art was one essential aspect of our research project.

The project mobilised 15 artists from the territories of North and South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), to reflect on their understanding of ‘protection’ and create unique artistic pieces in their various disciplines that encapsulate their interpretations. This included: photography, theatre, dance, percussion, music, painting, writing and slam. The project provided time and space for the artists to develop their reflection over six months, through collective discussions and improvisation, as well as personal creative processes.  This collection of original artworks was then presented in Bukavu, Goma, Kinshasa and London.

This project, funded under the AHRC-FCDO Collaborative Humanitarian Protection Research Programme, brings together the Institute of Development Studies (IDS); two academic partner organisations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – the Centre d’Etude, Promotion et des Recherches en Interventions Socio-Economiques (CEPRISE) and Institut National des Arts (INA); and the humanitarian/development INGO Action Aid (Action Aid UK and Action Aid DRC).


If you would like more information on this project, please explore the project’s resources:

Read our eBook (French and English

Read our working paper (French and English)

Read our policy brief

Read our paper in the Journal of Pacifism and Nonviolence

Follow our Medium blog (French)

Explore our photography and art work

Watch our videos

Project details

start date
1 April 2020
end date
31 March 2022


About this project

Programmes and centres
Humanitarian Learning Centre


Recent work

Past Event

Changing narratives of humanitarian protection: An artistic journey

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How to Co-produce Transdisciplinary and Plural Knowledge to Solve Complex Humanitarian Problems? An Illustration in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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20 July 2021