“I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it” — Maya Angelou
Written by Maricarmen Robles
Edited by Alexandra Bravo Schroth
For more than two decades, the levels of sexual violence witnessed in The Democratic Republic of the Congo have been heartbreaking. Even when the exact number of victims is unknown, experts estimate that tens of thousands of women, girls, men, and boys have been raped and otherwise sexually abused (HRW, 2020).
According to Human Rights Watch (2020), the perpetrators of sexual violence in eastern Congo are the dozens of armed groups that operate in the zone and members of the Congolese security forces. They use rape as a weapon of war to punish civilians. Furthermore, women and girls are kidnaped from their homes to become sexual slaves.
Sexual violence is often link up with torture; the perpetrators harmed their victims with machetes and other weapons before or after raping them. It is important to note that neither age nor behavior is related to this crime; girls as young as two and women older than eighty are targets and victims (HRW, 2020).
The issue worsens since the actual number of victims of sexual violence in Congo is unknown. The reason is that most victims do not report having been raped because of the stigma and fear of rejection by their families or communities (HRW, 2020) and the inability to reach health centers (van Wieringen, 2020).
This horrendous crime is rooted inside the structure of the armed groups. The BBC uncovered evidence that soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were ordered to rape women by their superior officers (BBC, 2013). Although Congolese authorities have carried out an increasing number of arrests and prosecutions for rape, the vast majority of perpetrators remain unpunished, and senior-level officers who have command responsibility for soldiers who rape are untouchable (HRW, 2020).
Multiple organizations are making efforts to combat sexual violence in Congo; the actions taken to increase the number of women reporting rape are community sensitization, capacity-building of legal clinics, and support for survivors of sexual violence (UNAIDS, 2021).
Despite Congolese civil and military criminal law forbids rape and that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is part of numerous international legislation against sexual violence, attempts by the government to address the evident sexual violence in the region have been unsuccessful (van Wieringen, 2020).
A significant change will only happen when the Congolese judicial system is modified to regulate the corrupt, politically interfered, underequipped, and undertrained magistrates. The authorities must establish a vetting mechanism to ensure the exclusion of sexual violence perpetrators from the security forces, adopt pending legislation to protect victims and witnesses, and ensure the payment of reparations through the establishment of a fund with dedicated resources (United Nations Security Council, 2021).
To have more information about the situation of women in Congo and the rates of sexual violence in the country, you can watch the documentary “City of Joy,” directed and written by Madeleine Gavin.
BBC. (2013). Dr. Congo soldiers’ ordered to rape’ women. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-africa-22114590.
Human Rights Watch (2014) Democratic Republic of Congo: ending impunity for sexual violence, new judicial mechanism needed to bring perpetrators to justice. https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/06/10/democratic-republic-congoending-impunity-sexual-violence.
Human Rights Watch. (2020, October 28). Democratic Republic of Congo: Ending Impunity for Sexual Violence. https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/06/10/democratic-republic-congo-ending-impunity-sexual-violence.
UNAIDS. (2021, March 9). Coalition working to end gender-based sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – the Democratic Republic of the Congo. ReliefWeb. https://reliefweb.int/report/democratic-republic-congo/coalition-working-end-gender-based-sexual-violence-democratic.
United Nations Security Council (2021). Conflict-related sexual violence: Report of the Secretary-General (pp. 13–13).
van Wieringen, K. (2020) To counter the rationality of sexual violence: existing and potential policies against the genocidal use of rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Int J Humanitarian Action 5, 8. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41018-020-00074-4