Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Malokele Nanivazo

Sexual violence crime (SV) in wartime is not a new phenomenon. Mass rapes have occurred in armed conflicts in Rwanda, Kosovo, Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, to give just a few examples. But the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has attracted very large amounts of international attention.

What makes SV committed in the DRC different from others? One reason is the magnitude and brutal nature of it. Reports by respected observers, such as the Human Rights Watch, have found that SV is used as a weapon of war by all parties involved in the long-standing conflict in the eastern provinces of Kivu.

Rape and other forms of SV (kidnapping, sexual slavery, gang rapes, and forced marriages) have been used as tools to win and maintain authority over civilians in territories occupied by rebel groups. SV is often committed in front of families and villagers to terrorize and control the local population. Women and girls of all ages have been raped (from a 23-month old baby, to an 84-year old). Recent reports show that the incidence of SV committed by civilians has increased due to the impunity prevailing in regions affected by the conflicts. According to data collected from local health centres in Kivu, about 40 women are raped every day. The data reveals that 13 per cent of these victims are under 14-years of age, 3 per cent die as a result of the rape, and 10-12 per cent contract HIV/AIDS. One recent study estimated 1,100 rapes per month between November 2008 and March 2009.

Towards better responses

Most victims do not report the crime for fear of being outcast and stigmatized. Sadly, this also impedes efforts to collect data on SV in the DRC. The victims suffer from life-long physical and psychological trauma, impairing their ability to participate in the development of their communities and making them more vulnerable.

The international response to SV has taken the form of either legal or medical aid. The United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR 1325) recognizes that women and children are adversely affected by armed conflicts and calls on states to take special measures to protect women and children from gender-based violence. UNSCR 1820 goes further by recognizing SV as a tactic of war, which exacerbates situations of armed conflicts, and impedes the restoration of peace and security. The UN also includes SV as a crime against humanity in the mandate of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Donors and development agencies fund many projects providing medical assistance and psychological support to victims. Projects include microcredit, apprenticeships, literacy, and nutrition programmes, as well as daycare programmes for the children of schoolgirls who have become mothers as a result of rape.

The DRC government has been unable to respond to SV. Lack of judicial effectiveness perpetuates a state of impunity. The judiciary is unable to uphold the rule of law due to entrenched corruption, lack of implementation mechanisms, and political interference.

In 2006, the DRC adopted a new constitution enshrining SV as a crime against humanity. However, the new law has not been enforced as judges often encourage out-of-court settlements. For instance, it is not unheard of that the male relatives of victims negotiate settlements with the perpetrators and their families—in the case of an identified civilian perpetrator—and outcomes range from marrying the victims to paying compensation for the crimes.

The international responses have been essential but limited in coping with the consequences of SV. What is the purpose of the judiciary if suspects are not put on trial? Why provide care for victims facing a high probability of being repeatedly raped? What is the purpose of educating stigmatized and outcast girls while leaving them exposed to further sexual exploitation? There have been several proposals addressing these problems, including comprehensive security sector reform. Proposals for such reform aim to introduce screening mechanisms for staff and officers with a record of human rights abuses, creating an effective military justice system, and encouraging measures for effective leadership and professionalism for security staff.

Security sector reform

Undeniably, the DRC security sector must be reformed due to its involvement in SV. A comprehensive approach targeting four fronts is needed for reducing these crimes and sustaining peace.

  • First, a comprehensive and large-scale initiative of institution-building should be undertaken because SV is a consequence of institutional failures. These projects should address practices of corruption because political leaders and elites have established a predatory system to maintain their control over natural resources. The goal would be to strengthen state capability to create favourable conditions for growth.

  • Second, a tightening of the DRC’s borders and constraining warlords and state representatives to relinquish private armies and militias should be considered.

  • Third, a complete reform of the economic, political, and social structures of the DRC is necessary to tackle the problems of underdevelopment and poverty. 

  • Fourth, an effort in empowering and educating women and girls needs to be considered. This can be achieved through increasing access to education for girls, improving the living conditions of women in rural areas, and increasing women’s participation in politics and positions of leadership. This will allow women to contribute in policy-making, and advocate for their own benefit. This initiative should also include a large-scale education programme to break the widespread tolerance and acceptance of SV as a fact of life in the DRC.

Without these reforms support to victims, or help for the Congolese population as a whole, will be ineffective. The cycle of sexual violence in the DRC can be broken, but it will require more determined national and international action than we see at present.

Malokele Nanivazo is a research fellow at UNU-WIDER. A DRC national, she is leading the aid and gender theme of UNU-WIDER’s ReCom programme.

WIDERAngle newsletter
April 2012
ISSN 1238-9544