Describing the conflict in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Margot Wallstrom, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflicts called it ‘the Rape Capital of the world’. After her appointment, Wallstrom visited the region and described it as the epicenter of sexual violence, where rape is used as a weapon of war.
The region has been plagued by multiple regional and civil wars since 1991, which became more pronounced in 1994 against a backdrop of regional hostilities stretching from the Rwanda genocide. Fighting continued, wave after wave untill 1996 and 1998 with the outbreak of what has locally been named Africa’s two ‘World Wars’.. Even with relative peace prevailing across the country today, the region has experienced minimal stability. Violence and frequent attacks against women have grown exponentially making headlines in the recent violent conflicts.
A UN report released in November 2010 indicated that the situation of sexual violence deteriorated further in 2009 registering 8000 victims of sexual violence in North and South Kivu provinces. These figures almost doubled the number of cases, which had been reported in 2008. Coordinated attacks occurred on the 19th and 21st of January where 53 women were raped on their way home from the market in Nakatete and Kitumba villages. Since January 2011, over 200 raped women, men and children have sought medical attention in the local health centers, reports Médecins sans Frontières. These figures are the minimum, given that a great number of women fear the social humiliation and retaliation, which accompanies reporting of such cases.
Rape remains one of the most serious human rights violations committed against civilians in the Kivus, Eastern DRC. Attacks are launched by armed members of the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) which also encompasses original elements of the Interahamwe. Threats have also increased as a result of enhanced militarization of the region by former militia groups and community-based militias formed to defend their local communities and demobilized soldiers. For instance, the Mayi Mayi and the FDLR were allegedly involved in the rape of 60 women in Luvungi Village North Kivu in July 2010.
The incidence of rape in Eastern DRC takes several forms including, sexual abuse, gang rapes, and individual rapes. No one seems to be spared in this mayhem: babies the age of ten months, girls, young boys, women, and the elderly have all fallen prey. Witnesses in Bukavu reported that attackers round up villages, tie up and rape women and girls publicly whilst forcing their family members to watch.
Rape has been used to instil fear and disrupt the social fabric of victimized families by deliberately stigmatizing women and undermining family and community structures. However, worrying questions revolve around the motive and motivation sustaining this kind of crime with impunity. Armed groups use rape as a tool for punishing local communities for collaborating with their rivals,’ reports by the Human Rights Watch indicate. Deficiency of military discipline, absence of legal protectionist instruments for women and inefficient judicial recourse create an environment of impunity. Opportunists take advantage of this situation to gain control and dominate local communities.
The effects and the strain caused by rape have far reaching repercussions. Rape and fear of it, constrains the daily human activity for women in eastern DRC. Women have been raped while going to the farms and markets. Attackers strategically target the prime age of both women and girls, which forms the country’s powerful resource. Rape increases the rate of HIV infection. Managing a sick population with increasing HIV infection as result of rape and sexually transmitted diseases also brings forth a number of economic, political and social challenges. Many victims continue to experience multiple injustices of isolation, denial, shame, stigmatization and revenge for airing their cases.
Thousands of women have come out openly in streets to oppose the vice and agitate for their rights and freedom. While appreciating the presence of numerous international and regional initiatives put in place to mitigate sexual violence in DRC, the reality is that it is ineffective. The international Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) has established a regional framework on the Prevention and Suppression of Sexual Violence against Women and Children in the Great Lakes Region. However, more political pressure is required in agitating for the ratification and domestication of the regional protocol, which would be a very strong regional approach towards achieving sustainable peace and development in Eastern DRC. Support from other regional bodies in which DRC is a signatory such as the Economic Community of the Great Lakes Countries (CEPGL) and the Economic Community for Central Africa States (ECCAS) is important in developing practical actions and strategies to guarantee the rights and protection of women and integrate their efforts in the campaign for lasting peace and security.
The recent prosecution of 11 army officers’ by a local mobile gender court, accused of raping 60 women at the beginning of the year sent a strong signal that justice is achievable in prosecuting perpetrators of these brutal war crimes.
Appreciating sexual violence as a major form of gender-based violence is essential in the process of devising gendered responses in conflict resolution and management. It is also important to increase institutions and women empowerment projects in order to elevate women to a point of significance where they can contribute positively to the economic and political development of the country. Education as stated in this year’s theme for the International Women’s Day is a basic need human and a fundamental human right, which all women deserve.
Quoting from Margret Ogola, an African linguistic writer, “A homestead without a daughter is like a spring without a source”. So is a nation in which women are disempowered. Women form a powerful resource in any society and their rights must be protected and safeguarded.
Written by Jeniffer Muthangai Katusya, Intern, African Conflict Prevention Programme, Nairobi Office