The History of Rape in the Congo
The United Nations has called the problem of rape and sexual violence in Democratic Republic of Congo one of the worst in the world. Despite the presence of UN peacekeeper troops, tens of thousands of women and girls continue to be the victims of brutal attacks that in many cases leave them scarred for life. One of the most recent attacks was a mass rape of over 300 women in the town of Luvungi last July. But the roots of the violence are related to Congo’s descent into violence that began some fifteen years ago.
U.N Special Representative on Sexual Violence Margot Wallstrom recently returned from a trip to Walikale in North Kivu province, where hundreds of women were mass raped by Rwandan rebels and Mai Mai militia in July and August. Reports indicated that the Congolese soldiers deployed to reassert their control in the area also committed rapes.
Wallstrom was aghast at some of the testimony she heard, pounding the table in disbelief at a recent briefing.
"Grandmothers who say that those young people who came here could be my grandchildren. 'And you come to rape me, one of the mothers of Congo? What is going on here? And how can you help us to stop this?"
Recently, hundreds of women marched in the eastern city of Bukavu to protest against rape.
One of the protesters was Congo's first lady, Marie Olive Kabila. Others had just been released from nearby hospitals where they had been treated for sexual violence.
Many similar marches have been held in recent years; thousands of U.N. peacekeepers are in eastern Congo; dozens of local and foreign non-governmental organizations try to tackle the problem, but mass rapes continue.
Some studies indicate that up to 40 percent of women in eastern Congo have been raped at some point in their life and the head of the UN mission in Congo Roger Meece says over 15,000 rapes were committed just last year.
Roots of the Violence
The roots of the violence go back over fifteen years, to the genocide in neighboring Rwanda that claimed nearly a million lives. That genocide created some two million refugees, who fled that conflict by moving into eastern Congo. Most of the refugees were Hutus, including member of the Interahamwe, the extremist group responsible for the genocide: they set up their new bases in eastern Congo.
Since then, the Congolese army, foreign-backed rebels, and home-grown militias have been fighting each other over power and over control of some of the world’s richest deposits of gold, copper, diamonds, strategic minerals and tin. Each new battle is followed by pillaging and rape and entire communities are terrorized. Civilians are at the mercy of heavily armed groups and according to the UN, Congolese soldiers are among the worst offenders.
Today, the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world is in Congo, but the UN says there are limits to what it can do. Special UN representative, Roger Meece:
"In this vast area larger than the size of Afghanistan, it is not possible for MONUSCO to ensure full protection for all civilians. To approach this goal would require vastly greater force levels and resources."
Kate Cronin-Furman is a human-rights lawyer and a prominent blogger on issues surrounding atrocities. "Awareness is not enough to solve problems. The issue right now is not that people do not know this is happening. I mean it has been all over the international media for years at this point. The issue is that when a state fails and there is no security apparatus in place it is incredibly difficult to deal with mass crime."
Rape as a Weapon of War
American independent journalist Joe Bavier, who is working on an oral history about Congo's conflict, says he believes the situation of sexual violence will continue as long as there is conflict in eastern Congo.
"It is something that has become a weapon of war, a tactic of war. It is used as a means of terror by the groups vying for control of areas of North Kivu and South Kivu. This is nothing new. You rarely see confrontations between the various sides in this conflict."
Instead, says Bavier, with rapidly shifting front lines, armed groups accuse civilians of being collaborators with whichever group was previously passing through and then use rape as a weapon of terror and humiliation.
Former U.N investigator Jason Stearns is working on his own book about the Congo, tentatively titled "Dancing in the Glory of Monsters". He says rapes are also used as a means of indoctrination within armed groups.
"Sexual violence or rape is used in a gang-rape setting to make sure that new recruits actually feel like they are part of the group."
Stearns says instances of civilian on civilian rape are also high.
"The torn social fabric, a culture of chauvinism and sexism is becoming more predominant. Unfortunately you see even among civilians in the Congo that sexual violence is becoming more prominent and that is also very disturbing."
A leading Congolese activist against sexual violence, Justine Masika Bihamba, recently concluded a trip in the United States to gather outside support.
Bihamba says what is needed above all to reduce sexual violence is an end to the armed conflict in Congo.
In the meantime, she is calling for more local tribunals in eastern Congo, as well as training, reform and better pay for police, judges and military so they can become a part of the solution, rather than a part of the problem, she says, in Congo's lasting and debilitating rape epidemic