Survivors of sexual violence, South Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo: UN Photo/Marie Frechon
In April 2010, the UN Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, described the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as “the rape capital of the world”. Despite her call to make the prevention of sexual violence a top priority, there is little evidence that the situation in the DRC has improved in the past two years.
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Sexual violence crime 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 sexual violence 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 sexual violence 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 sexual violence (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. Sexual violence 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 sexual violence 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 percent of these victims are under 14 years of age, 3 percent die as a result of the rape, and 10–12 percent contract HIV/AIDS. One recent study estimated 1,100 rapes per month between November 2008 and March 2009.
Most victims do not report the crime for fear of being outcast and stigmatized. Sadly, this also impedes efforts to collect data on sexual violence 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 sexual violence 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 sexual violence as a tactic of war, which exacerbates situations of armed conflicts, and impedes the restoration of peace and security. The UN also includes sexual violence 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 sexual violence. 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 sexual violence 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; 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 sexual violence. 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.
Undeniably, the DRC security sector must be reformed due to its involvement in sexual violence. A comprehensive approach targeting four fronts is needed for reducing these crimes and sustaining peace.
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.