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Sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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Sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The map of Democratic Republic of Congo from the CIA World Factbook

The [3]

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has had a long history of unrest and instability. Although sexual violence has always occurred in the DRC in some capacity, increased rates of sexual violence coincided with the armed conflicts of the early 1990s and later.[4]

Much of the research conducted about sexual violence in the DRC has focused on violence against and rape of women as related to these armed conflict, mostly occurring in the eastern region of the country.[5] The eastern region of the country does have the highest rates of sexual violence, and much of it is perpetrated by armed militia groups.[6] However, other studies have begun to show that sexual violence is pervasive in all parts of the country and that it is not always related to the conflict.[6]

While there is extensive evidence of the societal and individual ramifications caused by the sexual violence in the country, the government has been criticized for not doing enough to stop it.[4] Although Congolese law criminalizes many forms of sexual violence, these laws are not always enforced.[4]

High rates of sexual violence in the country are undeniable. However, there are some who believe that the international attention on the narrative of rape against women in the eastern region overshadows other issues that deserve attention as well, namely, sexual violence against men and boys, and sexual violence perpetrated by women.[7] Despite evidence on how pervasive sexual violence is against women, men, and children across the nation, the topic remains under-researched and under-resourced.[5]

Historical background

Rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo has frequently been described as a "weapon of war," and the United Nations officially declared rape a weapon of war in 2008.[8] War rape makes a particularly effective weapon because it not only destroys its physical victims, but entire communities as well.[9] War, violence, and instability have ravaged the DRC for decades, and this has led to a culture of violence in war and civilian life that often takes its form in a sexual nature.

Eleven years after the Republic of the Congo gained independence in 1960, president Mobutu renamed the country Zaire in 1971 and ruled the nation under an autocratic and corrupt regime.[4] Under Mobutu's regime, sexual abuse was used as a method of torture.[10]

Mobutu ruled until 1995, when after the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, many génocidaires fled across Rwanda's western border into the DRC in hopes of escaping censure. Hutu extremist militias were reformed across the border, particularly in Kivu, the DRC's easternmost city, bringing crime and violence to the DRC. This influx of militants and fighting in Burundi catalyzed the First Congo War and the end of Mobutu's regime. Spurred by the violence, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL), led by Laurent Kabila, launched a rebellion against Mobutu regime in 1995 in the eastern part of the country.[4]

Wilhelmine Ntakebuka, who coordinates a sexual violence program in Bukavu, believes that the increase in sexual violence started with the inflow of foreign militants:

The epidemic of rapes seems to have started in the mid-1990s. That coincides with the waves of Hutu militiamen who escaped into Congo’s forests after exterminating 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during Rwanda’s genocide 13 years ago. Mr. Holmes said that while government troops might have raped thousands of women, the most vicious attacks had been carried out by Hutu militias.[11]
M23 rebels in Goma, November 2012
The violence from the First Congo War lead to the Second Congo War, which officially ended in 2006 with the election of the first democratically elected president, Joseph Kabila. However, there has been no end to the violence. A major confrontation in 2007 between government forces and troops of Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda culminated in another major confrontation in the eastern province of Nord-Kivu. Recently, instability and violence have greatly increased since the mutiny of members of the Government of DRC and the creation of the rebel movement, M23, supported by the Government of Rwanda and individuals of the Government of Uganda.[12] Moreover, as recently as December 2012, the UN accused M23 rebels of raping and killing civilians in eastern DRC.[13] There have also recently been allegations of a military attack and 72 counts of rapes against civilians by M23 in the Minova area.[13]

Much of this continuing violence is a result of long-lasting animosity between the Tutsis, the Hutus, and other groups.[14] Other factors of the continued violence are control of land, control of minerals, and economic tensions. The persistence of rape can also be attributed to misconceptions about rape, such as the myth that having sex with prepubescent girls will give people strength in battle or business dealings.[7] The long history of violence has led to a culture of desensitization, lacking respect for international norms of human rights, and inadequate education.[10]

Today, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, particularly the eastern region of the country, is known as the rape capital of the world.[8] While "the law specifically prohibits and provides penalties of 10 to 20 years' imprisonment for child and forced prostitution, pimping, and trafficking for sexual exploitation....There were no reported investigations or prosecutions of traffickers during the year [2007]."[15] There is no law against spousal sexual assault.[16]

Forms of sexual violence

Rape of women

Margot Wallström dubbed eastern Congo the "most dangerous place on earth to be a woman" and it is said that rape is simply a fact of life in the DRC.[7] In October 2004 the [17][18]

A 2011 report recorded that 1,000 women had been raped daily.[19]

According to research conducted by The Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010, 39.7% of women in the Eastern Region (North Kivu, South Kivu, and Province Orientale) of the DRC reported to have been exposed to sexual violence during their lifetime, most commonly taking its form in rape.[20] Another study conducted in 2010 found that two in five women living in the eastern region have been the victims of sexual violence.[21]

As Noel Rwabirinba, a sixteen-year-old who had been a militiaman for two years said, “If we see girls, it’s our right…we can violate them.”[8] This statement reflects the normalization of rape in the DRC. Because of conflicts, between 60 and 90 percent of women are single heads of households. This puts many burdens upon them, such as having to travel long distances to find resources, leaving them vulnerable to violence.[22]

Patricia Rozée identifies different categories of rape, all of which occur in the DRC: punitive rape (used to punish to elicit silence and control); status rape (occurring as a result of acknowledged differences in rank); ceremonial rape (undertaken as part of socially sanctioned rituals); exchange rape (when genital contact is used as a bargaining tool); theft rape (involuntary abduction of individuals as slaves, prostitutes, concubines, or spoils of war); and survival rape (when women become involved with older men to secure goods needed to survive).[7]

Rape, as related to the conflicts, is the most prevalent form of sexual violence in the country, particularly in the eastern region. However, civilians are also the perpetrators of rape.[20] Furthermore, although people might assume that men always perpetrate conflict-related sexual violence against women, women are also perpetrators. In the study conducted by the American Medical Association, of those who reported conflict-related sexual violence in Eastern Region of the DRC, 41.1% reported women as their perpetrators.[20]

Rape of men

The rape of men is also common. More studies are coming out to show that both women and men are the victims and perpetrators of sexual violence in the DRC.[21]

Research conducted by The Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010 cites that 23.6% of men in the Eastern Region of the country have been exposed to sexual violence. And, a similar study also conducted in 2010 found that 22% of men (as compared to 30% of women) in eastern Congo reported conflict-related sexual violence. A cross-sectional, population-based study found that one in four men living in the eastern region of the country have been the victims of sexual violence.[21] Moreover, at least 4 to 10 percent of all rape victims are male.[7]

The prevalence of rape of men in the country is likely underreported due to extreme stigma attached to sexual abuse of males.[23] Men who admit to being raped risk ostracism by their community and criminal prosecution, because they may be seen as homosexual, which is a crime in 38 African countries.[24] Male victims are less likely to appear in court, and those who do are cast away in their villages and called "bush wives."[25] According to Denise Siwatula, a programme officer at the Women’s Synergy for the Victims of Sexual Violence based in Kivus, many men are victims of sexual violence and they need different assistance than women who come to their center.[23]

Lynn Lawry, a humanitarian expert at the International Health Division of the US Department of Defense, said, “When we are looking at how we are going to address communities, we need to talk to female perpetrators as well as male perpetrators, and we have to include male survivors in our mental health clinics in order to address their issues, which may be very different from female survivors."[26]

Sexual abuse of children

A group of demobilized child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

UNFPA reported that over 65% of victims during the past 15 years were children. The majority of this percentage was adolescent girls and roughly 10% of child victims are said to be under 10 years old.[3] Many child soldiers, after being recruited from refugee camps, are often sexually abused.[27]

Over 12 percent of children in the eastern part of the DRC do not reach their first birthday, tens of thousands of children have been recruited as child soldiers, and rape of girls and gender-based violence of minors is widespread.[28]

Trafficking and prostitution

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a source and destination for trafficking for forced labor and forced prostitution, much of which is internal and perpetrated by armed groups in the eastern region of the DRC.[4] The DRC is said to be the main regional source, from which women and children are trafficked in large numbers to sex industries in Angola, South Africa, Republic of Congo, and western Europe, particularly Belgium.[29] Prostitution and forced prostitution occurs often in refugee camps in the country.[30] In addition to forced prostitution in refugee camps, many girls are forced into prostitution in tent- or hut-based brothels, markets, and mining areas.[29]

The main perpetrators are the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), Patriotes Resistants Congolais (PARECO), various local militia (such as the Mai-Mai), the Alliance des patriots pour un Congo libre et souverain (APCLS), and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).[29] There are many reports of these groups forcibly recruiting women and children to serve in sexual servitude.[29]

Domestic violence

Article 444 of the Congo Family Code states that a wife “owes her obedience to her husband”.[31] Marital rape is not considered an offense in the DRC.[5]

Research Directorate has called domestic violence “very prevalent” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[32] According to several studies conducted in 2011, intimate partner sexual violence is the most pervasive form of violence against women in all areas of the DRC.[6] A 2010 study concluded that intimate partner violence was reported by 31% of women and 17% of men.[21]

Central factors for the high rates of domestic violence are the reintegration of combatants in communities, circulation of arms, and post-traumatic stress in times during and after conflict.[32] However, reporting domestic violence is rare because women have no rights to share property or wealth, fear losing their children or being shunned by the community, or may not even know it is a punishable offense.[32]

Other forms

The United Nations includes rape, public rapes, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, gang rape, forced incest, sexual mutilation, disemboweling, genital mutilation, cannibalism, deliberate spread of HIV/AIDS, and forced sterilization as other forms of sexual violence that occur in the DRC that are used as techniques in war against the civilian population.[33]

Other forms of sexual savagery reported include: forcing of crude objects such as tree branches and bottles into the vagina,[34] public rape in front of the family and community, forced rape between victims, the introduction of objects into the victims' cavities, pouring melted rubber into women's vaginas, shooting women in the vagina and inducing abortions using sharp objects.[35]


Militia groups

According to Human Rights Watch, while many of the perpetrators of sexual violence are militia groups, some of whom have been known to kidnap women and girls and use them as sex slaves,[3] the Congolese army, Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC), is the "single largest group of perpetrators."[3]

In 2007, the FARDC soldiers. Some commanders have been purported to overlook sexual violence perpetrated by those under their command.[3] There are also incidents of rape involving the police, others in authority, civilians, and other opportunistic criminals.[34]

Civilian perpetrators

In June 2010, UK aid group Oxfam reported a dramatic increase in the number of rapes occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Contrary to MONUSCO's 2007 report, the study found that 38% of rapes were committed by civilians in 2008. Rapes by civilians are increasing, demonstrating that sexual violence is becoming even more widespread throughout the country. This is a particularly dramatic rise compared to the number of civilian-perpetrated rapes in 2004, which was less than 1%.[36][37] Researchers from Harvard discovered that rapes committed by civilians had increased seventeenfold.[38] Consistent with these studies is a statement from Dr. Margaret Agama, the DRC's United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative:

Initially, rape was used as a tool of war by all the belligerent forces involved in the country’s recent conflicts, but now sexual violence is unfortunately not only perpetrated by armed factions but also by ordinary people occupying positions of authority, neighbours, friends and family members.


A survey by the Brazil-based nonprofit organization Promundo found that 16% of girls in North Kivu said they had been forced to have sex with their teachers.[39] And according to a 2010 UNICEF report, 46% of Congolese schoolgirls in a national study confirmed that they had been victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and violence committed by their teachers or other school personnel.[39]

Female perpetrators

A 2010 survey in over 1,000 households in eastern Congo by a team of researchers led by Harvard academic Lynn Lawry asked victims of sexual violence to specify their assailant’s gender.[40] The study found that 40% of the female victims and 10% of male victims said they have been assaulted by a woman.[40] A UN expert on armed groups states, "“Women who were raped for years are now raping other women.”[40]

Violence by Angola

Congolese women are being systematically raped in Angola as a means of expelling the Congolese living there.[41] With a booming mining trade, Congolese continue migrating into Angola in search of a living. Among some 26,000 people expelled since April 2011, more than 21,000 cases of serious human rights violations, including rape, beating, torture and looting, have been documented by an Italian aid agency that has a UN grant to monitor the border.[41] Human Rights Watch says the goal of the abuse is to instill fear.[41]


Medical ramifications

The medical repercussions of the sexual assault in the [43]

These are all more severe the younger the victim is. Young girls who are not fully developed are more likely to suffer from obstructed birth, which can lead to fistulas or even death. On a young girl, a pelvis “[hasn’t] yet grown large enough to accommodate the baby’s head, a common occurrence with young teenagers…[these girls end] up in obstructed birth, with the baby stuck inside [their] birth passage[s]…[often, they can’t] walk or stand, a consequence of nerve damage that is a frequent by-product of fistulae.”[8]

At the Doctors on Call for Service/Heal Africa Hospital in Eastern DRC, 4,715 of the women reported having suffered sexual violence; 4,009 received medical treatment; 702 had a fistula, 63.4% being traumatic and 36.6% being obstetric.[34]

Sexual assault has also contributed to the HIV rate. Before the conflict in 1997, only 5% of the population was HIV positive; by 2002, there was a 20% HIV positive rate in the eastern region.[44] A study conducted found that sociocultural barriers and strict obedience to Vatican doctrine prevented adolescents from receiving condoms or comprehensive sex education, which contributes to the spread of HIV.[45]

Psychological and social ramifications

There are also many psychological and social consequences to being the victim of sexual violence. Victims often suffer from [46] Psychological trauma after experiencing sexual violence can have a negative effect on sexual behavior and relationships, feelings about sex, ability to negotiate safer sex, and increased likelihood of drug abuse.[5]

The most common social consequence for victims of sexual violence is isolation from their families and communities.[46] Raped women are seen as impure, frequently leading to their being abandoned by their husbands or having trouble marrying.[47] The most extreme versions of this stigmatization can lead to "[43]

Young women and girls who are cast outside of their homes, or leave due to shame will most likely become even more vulnerable to further abuse.[3] Moreover, the culture of widespread violence often affects children at an early age. Sexual violence is also perpetrated by minors, particularly among those involved with combatant forces. A previous child soldier of the Mai-Mai fighters’ movement, who fought to resist the Interahamwe from Rwanda who took refuge in the DRC after they fled from the Rwandan Patriotic Front, said that reasons that child soldiers and other combatants rape women include: listening to witch doctors’ advice, drug use, long periods in bush, gaining sexual experience, punishment, revenge, and a weapon of war.[48]

Regional differences

  1. Bandundu
  2. Bas-Congo
  3. Équateur
  4. Kasai-Occidental
  5. Kasai-Oriental
  6. Katanga
  7. Kinshasa (city-province)
  8. Maniema
  9. North Kivu
  10. Orientale
  11. South Kivu

Several reports claim that there are no accurate representative numbers on the prevalence of sexual violence in the DRC because of underreporting and lack of research.[6] Moreover, so far, there are no reports to indicate differences in rates of sexual violence based upon education, income, or residence (urban or rural).[6] However, other research studies have found regional differences in rates and types of sexual violence in the DRC.

According to research done by the American Journal of Public Health in 2011, the highest rates of rape against women occurred in the North Kivu province.[6] The war-torn and mineral-rich areas in the eastern part of the country have very high rates of sexual violence. M23 has recently gained control of territory in North Kivu, the city of Goma, and other areas of the Ruthuru region, and there have been recent reports of sexual violence in those areas.[49]

Anthony Gambino, mission director for the Congo of the United States Agency for International Development, has also said that “shockingly high rape statistics are found in western Congo as well as northern and eastern Congo,” but that conflict-related rape is less prevalent in the west.[50] Although most reports agree that sexual violence related to the armed conflict are most prevalent in North and South Kivu, Maniema, and Katanga, one report found that the highest number of rapes reported in 2007 by women aged 15 to 49 was in the provinces of Orientale, North Kivu and Équateur.[6] They found that sexual violence not related to the armed conflict, such as in Équateur, often takes its form in intimate-partner violence.[6]

Preventative efforts

Increasing awareness regarding the problem of sexual violence in the DRC has led to both national and international efforts to prevent the continuation of the atrocities taking place.

Government policy

According to articles of the Constitution of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, sexual violence is defined and criminalized as a form of gender-based violence and gender discrimination (article 14); a cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment (article 16); a crime against humanity (article 15); and a violation of an individual’s right to peace (article 52).[25][51] Congolese law draws a distinction between rape and systematic rape, sexual violence being a crime against the state and systematic sexual violence as an international crime.

In 2006, the Palais du Peuple, the Congolese government, enacted sexual violence amendments to the 1940 Penal Code and the 1959 Penal Procedure Code.[25] Part of these changes was criminalizing “insertion of an object into a woman’s vagina, sexual mutilation, and sexual slavery” as well as defining “any sexual relation with a minor as statutory rape.”[3] The Congolese government's department, The Ministry of Gender, Family Affairs and Children, is dedicated to dealing with sexual violence within the nation.[3]

International community and nongovernmental organizations

International human rights organizations began to document sexual violence in 2002.[25]

In September 2009, following her visit to the DRC, U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton oversaw the adoption of the U.N Security Council Resolution 1888, which details specific efforts that must be taken to protect women from sexual violence in war-stricken regions, and measures taken to bring perpetrators to justice.[52] Clinton has also urged the Congolese government to personally investigate members of FARDC who have committed crimes of sexual violence, and FARDC generals have declared that they will set up new military tribunals to prosecute soldiers accused of sexual violence.[53][52] Additionally, she has supported a $17 million plan to combat the sexual violence in the DRC.[52]

USAID/Kinshasa currently provides medical, psycho-social, judicial, and socio-economic support to approximately 8,000 survivors in North Kivu, South Kivu, and Maniema Province.[54] The International Security and Stabilization Support Strategy found that 72 percent of international funds for sexual violence in the DRC are devoted to treating victims of rape and 27 percent to preventing sexual abuse.[55]

DRC vs Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda in March 1999 was the first case the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights heard that discussed violations of human rights, including sexual violence, during an armed conflict.[56] The Commission found that the human rights abuses committed in the eastern provinces of the DRC were not in agreement to Part III of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 1949, Article 75(2) of Protocol 1, and Articles 2 and 4 of the African Charter.[56]

The International Criminal Court is conducting an ongoing investigation into crimes committed in the DRC during the Second Congo War and afterwards. Several military leaders have been charged with crimes of sexual violence. Germain Katanga, the leader of the Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FPRI), and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, the leader of the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI), were charged and indicted with nine crimes against humanity including sexual slavery, a crime against humanity under article 7(1)(g) of the Rome Statute and a war crime under article 8(2)(b)(xxii) or (e)(vi) of the Rome Statute.[57][58] Bosco Ntaganda of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo (FPLC) was charged with rape and sexual slavery.[59] Callixte Mbarushimana of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and Sylvestre Mudacumura have also been charged with rape.[60][61]

According to Tier Rating, the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo does not comply with minimum standards for efforts to eliminate this problem by prosecuting perpetrators and providing services to victims.[4] The government has not shown evidence in prosecuting sex trafficking perpetrators.[29]

In June 2014 UK-based rehabilitation charity Freedom from Torture published its report "Rape as Torture in the DRC: Sexual Violence Beyond the Conflict Zone,[62] using evidence from 34 forensic medical reports, to show that rape and sexual violence is being used routinely by state officials in Congolese prisons as punishment for politically active women. One of the women mentioned in the report stated:"Now I know, because I have been there, that it is normal for women to be sexually abused in prison..." The women included in the report were abused in several locations across the country including the capital Kinshasa and other areas away from the conflict zones.

In addition, V-Day, has not only been crucial in the growing awareness regarding sexual violence in the DRC, but has also entered into a project with UNICEF and the Panzi Foundation to build The City of Joy, a special facility in Bukavu for survivors of sexual violence in the DRC. The center, which can host up to 180 women a year, has resources such as sexual education courses, self-defense classes, and group therapy, as well as academic classes and courses in the arts.[63] The City of Joy facility opened in February 2011.[64]

Other perspectives

There are others who offer different perspectives to the dominant discourse about sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Many Congolese populations on the ground, Congolese intellectuals, and field-based interveners emphasize that there are many other consequences of the armed conflict that deserve as much attention as sexual violence does, including killings, forced labor, child soldiers, and torture.[7] They also believe that the attention to rape in the DRC contributes to the proliferation of the widespread stereotype of Congolese people as savage and barbaric.[65]

It is also said that the international focus on this problem has led to unintended, negative consequences, including ignoring other forms of violence and rape of men and boys.[7] The worst consequence discussed is the belief that some armed groups think that sexual violence is now an effective bargaining tool. Thus, according to this perspective, the international focus is actually contributing to the increase of sexual violence.[65] It has been said that the mass rapes in Luvungi in 2010, where Mai Mai Sheka gang raped 387 civilians, was partly due to this consequence because Sheka allegedly ordered his soldiers to rape women to draw attention to their group.[7]

See also



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External links

  • The Advocacy Project 2009 Peace Fellow Elisa Garcia in partnership with BVES
  • Heal Africa
  • Rape as torture in the DRC:Sexual violence beyond the conflict zone
  • AMKENI Action Group: From illiteracy to entrepreneurship for survivors of sexual violence in Democratic Republic of Congo
  • [2]
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