Ending Child Marriage in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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"Marriage is not my priority right now. I am not yet mature enough to take it on,” says 17-year-old Sidonie Mitongu, who lives in the Dibua village in Kasai Oriental province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Catholic Relief Services is implementing the Budikadidi project, the title of which translates to “self-sufficiency” in the local language of Tshiluba.

young woman seated outside in DRC

Sidonie Mitongu outside her home in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As an adolescent mentor within CRS' Budikadidi program, Sidonie works with young girls at risk of forced marriage. Photo by Tresor Tshiteya/CRS

Sidonie’s words are a source of hope for the teenage girls who are often forced to marry.

While Congolese law clearly states that men and women may not marry before the age of 18, it is often ignored due to deeply embedded cultural norms—especially in rural communities. Traditionally, paternal aunts and uncles are allowed to demand and collect dowry in exchange for marrying their siblings’ first two daughters, regardless of their ages.

Community pressure and fear of exclusion results in parents removing their underage daughters from school and forcing them into marriage, often with much older men. In most cases, these girls are at greater risk for abuse, rape and difficult childbirth.

One year ago, when Sidonie was 16, she was pressured by her parents, who could no longer pay her school fees, to marry a man twice her age. Sidonie was afraid, as she knew nothing about marriage. She wanted to continue with her education.

Sidonie ran away from home to her grandmother's house. It was while living there that she discovered and joined a local youth club. After learning about her situation, club members appealed to the village chief, who agreed to meet Sidonie's parents. After learning more about the dangers of and laws against forced marriage, Sidonie’s parents changed their minds. They found the funds they needed to send Sidonie back to school.

"Everything went well for me, so I will make my choice in the future,” Sidonie says. “For now, I feel safe to continue my studies and get my degrees.”

Sidonie continues to participate in Budikadidi, alongside more than 1,600 mentors who are working to end child marriage in 491 villages of Kasai Oriental. To date, they have reached more than 180,000 young people, who are now able to express themselves, resist and oppose any obstacles to their dreams.

Mentors emphasize the rights of the child, the Congolese family law and code, as well as the consequences of early marriage on girls, the community and the nation. The mentors also work with community leaders to liaise with families. Through their work, community perceptions of child marriage and the value of young girls are changing. Parents are gradually abandoning these practices, with health centers recording fewer cases of teenage pregnancies.

“This mentoring program has been very beneficial for us young people, especially girls,” Sidonie says. “We interact well with the other young people in the group and share useful information for our future to encourage other young people in the community to focus on their studies and not get married before they're old enough."


Budikadidi is a resilience and food security activity, improves nutrition for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and children under age two. The program was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development through its Department of Humanitarian Assistance. More than 87,500 households across 484 villages in the Kasai Oriental province—Cilundu, Kasansa and Miabi health zones—of the Democratic Republic of Congo participated in the project's interventions. Catholic Relief Services led this 7-year project in partnership with the National Cooperative Business Association, Sun Mountain International, Tufts University, Caritas Mbuji-Mayi, ReFED, and Reseau des Associations Congolaises des Jeunes, to deliver a multi-sectoral set of projects including agriculture and livelihoods, nutrition, health, water, sanitation and hygiene programs and governance. The integrated projects are based on global evidence and appropriately adapted to the local context, working to strengthen existing systems, improve accountability, strengthen social cohesion, and reduce barriers to structural, cultural and gender-based change.