Risking it all for a diploma, the only way to escape starvation

Isabelle Ntanga Kabeya, Suzie Manyong Nawat, Eric Mwamba


The Katanga region, with its vast deposits of copper, cobalt, zinc and silver, is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s treasure trove. Mostly thanks to the employment in the mines, living conditions here are slightly better than in the rest of the country, but that says more about the DRC in general than about Katanga. Close to seventy percent of people here still live under the extreme poverty rate of US$ 1,90 a day. Chronic mismanagement, bad governance and elite exploitation of the resources are the causes why even civil servants, -the only ones who can traditionally count on a salary in this country-, are often simply not paid. It is why their daughters now finance their own living costs and studies themselves.

Meeting in secret on a Sunday morning in front of Lubumbashi’s university medicine faculty, alongside Moise Tshombe airstrip, Laura (23), a student at the Faculty of Letters tells us how her father who works for the Gécamines state mining enterprise hasn’t received his salary in months. He has looked for other work, but there is little other than subsistence farming or selling fruit on the streets, and even if he would do that he wouldn’t be able to feed his family, let alone pay for Laura’s education.

A really wealthy customs officer

The family has contemplated marrying her off, but Laura is determined to continue with her studies. So she leaves her name and number with the hotel receptionists in Lubumbashi. In exchange for a percentage they will refer clients to her, but even so, it remains a struggle to eat and to pay for school, she says. “You make money but in order to continue to make it you have to spend a lot on grooming to stay attractive,” she says with a sigh. “You need to serve a lot of clients.” She will continue to do this, though, since she believes that the only thing that you can hope for to save you from starvation in the DRC is a diploma.

Juliette (22), a first-time student at the Faculty of Arts at the same university, comes from a large family: ten children of which she is the penultimate. Her father also used to work for Gécamines, but he is now retired and can’t afford her food, school fees or even the ‘packed like sardines’ buses between Katuba, where they live, and the university. Therefore Juliette, too, prostitutes herself. She is luckier than Laura, because she has found a single ‘sugar daddy’ instead of having to ‘serve’ many men. Her ‘old man’ of 56 is a really wealthy customs officer. Customs officers in the DRC can amass many riches indeed, since the minerals smugglers pay you to process their paperwork. The man feeds and clothes Juliette, and also pays for her studies.

STREAMER Juliette now has to have sex with teachers and administrators too

There is one drawback though, and it is a huge one. The customs officer calls on Juliette even during lecture and exam times. As a result, last year, she did not obtain the satisfactory average to pass and to stay in school, she now had to have sex with teachers and administrators, too.

Quack doctors and repetitive abortions

We spoke to over twenty girls who sleep with teachers in exchange for money for school fees and public transport. It is a constant battle full of risks, they say : when the money it is not enough and you have to find support from someone else, or when you go out with a student you actually like, the ‘sugar daddies’ who came first get enraged, remind you that you are their property, and “then go on the hunt for the other man.”

Most of the students’ clients also refuse to use condoms, with all the consequences of girls falling sick, or going for backstreet abortions, which carry their own risk of infections and death. In the DRC’s crazy reality, birth control is available in some pharmacies and clinics in the cities, but family planning is so frowned upon -and also often believed to have side effects such as sterility and cancer-, that women often rather risk illegal abortion in secret than to be found out, by nurses, partners or neighbours, to be using the pill. 

With proper healthcare in this country only accessible to the really rich, the girls often, in despair, resort to the omnipresent quack doctors and their potions, or the magic spells practiced by witch doctors in the village. At least the latter have the added advantage of promising good marks as well as healing. “The hunt for a diploma is almost a religion here,” says a researcher at UNILU’s sociology department.

Masina and Matete, Kinshasa

Maybe a diploma will help -at least that is what the students hope for-  to not end up like those who live in Masina and Matete, among the poorest neighbourhoods in the capital, Kinshasa.

Or we should say, rather, that Masina and Matete are like most of Kinshasa. Good neighbourhoods here are exceptional: the elite lives in Gombe (or Paris, France); the NGO people in Ngaliema. The rest is shack, mud, potholes and walking far to get water, like in Masina and Matete.

STREAMER Almost everyone knows a girl who never returned from the back streets

Pauline undergoes “repetitive abortions,” she says, as a consequence of her sex work, which she does “for rent money” even though she also works as a hairdresser and a vegetable seller. The backstreet abortion abounds in Kinshasa, too, and is often thought even scarier than Aids. Almost everyone knows a girl who never came back after ‘going there.’ Marilène, who also does sex work besides selling coconuts, agitatedly criticises families who don’t teach their daughters about family planning, and Therèse, also in Matete, who does laundry for better-off families, sleeps for money with one of her clients’ husbands, and supports her elderly parents this way, wishes that parents in general would do more family planning.

Thirty-one out of the thirty-eight women -eighty percent- we interviewed in Masina and Matete said they have sex for money. Ten had regular sugar daddies, while the rest had to find clients on the street. However, none of the women considered themselves an actual sex worker. They were dress makers, secretaries, babysitters, and singers; mobile telephone airtime sellers, waitresses, domestic workers and housewives. All of them said they were risking, beside backstreet abortion and disease, also physical abuse on the streets and abandon by partners and families if found out.

The Ministry of Gender

The responses from the accountable authorities -none of whom agreed to be named- are the usual. “To date the government has not yet put in place an effective policy for the salaries of civil servants, but we are battling to improve,” says an adviser to the Minister of Labour and Social Welfare when asked about the unpaid salaries in Lubumbashi. A counselor at the Ministry for Youth Supervision (Ministère de Tutelle), confronted with the findings about girls doing sex work just to be able to go to school, says his department “has a list of students who can’t afford to pay their fees” and that he “is working with other relevant departments to address the situation.” A bureau chief at the Ministry for Higher Education is “considering a system of scholarships and other solutions,” and an officer at the Ministry of Gender, Families and Children offers intentions to “try to solve the problem” and the plan to “establish a policy of surveying the population in order to know the realities.”

STREAMER “The government just appoints clowns”

The women we surveyed already seem to have a good grasp of those realities, though. Students and township women alike immediately pointed to “government” when asked who is to blame for the misery in their lives. “The government just appoints clowns,” notes office secretary Katy. “Government has no policies or programmes for women,” says fellow secretary Mado, whilst restaurant server Lucie points out that there are simply “no jobs if you are female.” Sephora and Olive point alternatively to the “weak economy” and the “low level of industrialisation” in this country, that watches its raw natural resource wealth being stolen by anyone who shares with those at the top.

Granted, some of those interviewed look more inwardly. They blame parents, husbands and themselves for not having worked hard enough or for having made wrong choices. But eighteen out of the thirty-eight -close to half- mention the political and social background issues in their country. And if you count Marilène’s and Therèse’s awareness of the need for more family planning initiatives, that’s twenty out of thirty-eight women, among the miserable shacks of Matete and Masina, who seem to be more aware of the DRC’s actual problems than their elected officials. You’d almost think they went to university.

More From the Series

More From the Series


CHAPTER 2: THE LAST RESOURCE, KENYA | Fighting for daily life

CHAPTER 3: THE LAST RESOURCE, LIBERIA |Surviving amid predators and hunger


CHAPTER 6: THE LAST RESOURCE, SOUTH AFRICA | Apartheid and the useless men in our lives

CHAPTER 7: THE LAST RESOURCE, UGANDA | A very public secret