By Lara Kajs
More than 500,000 women between the ages of 12 and 70 have been raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo. To put this in simple terms: in the next five minutes, five more women will have been raped.
Women who are raped in the DR Congo (and many other countries) are often shamed into secrecy which adds to their trauma. In a country where rape is so common, their cries for help are more often ignored by neighbors and family members. The trauma suffered goes deeper as relationships are broken. It is not uncommon for male family members to be forced to watch as their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters are raped and worse still when those family members are forced to participate in the rape.
In many cases, women who are raped lose their purity and therefore their value in the eyes of their societal culture. Unable to marry, parents may discard their daughters – or husbands may reject their wives. And the perpetrators are rarely brought to justice.
“We found them in our house. They pillaged everything. They put my husband on the bed and beat him. Then two of the soldiers raped me. This story is so tragic – I can’t believe this happened to me. I prefer death instead of life. Now, the world is without me because of my situation.” - 27 year old mother of three children who was raped in June 2002 and subsequently abandoned by her husband. Now the World is Without Me: An Investigation of Sexual Violence in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative & Oxfam, 2010.
Rape with impunity is more evident in cases where the rapist is a police officer, active military or former military member, or a person in position of power. Shame and fear are often used to prevent the victim from coming forward and telling their story. The likely scenario is that the perpetrator commits rape or some other type of sexual violence without being brought to justice which denies the victim’s the right to see their attacker punished.
The sad reality is that rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo is highly stigmatized and often goes unreported because the government has taken a position of indifference or outright looks the other way. Even in cases where the victims try to seek justice, the system is stacked against them and then there is the shame that is placed on them that they will bring dishonor to their family members if they tell what happened to them. Without a strong support network and a government who believes it is time to end impunity, the victims of rape and sexual violence are without justice.
Rape in Conflict Areas
Rape is highest in areas where conflict between the government military or armed opposition occurs, and it is not limited to women, but also includes young boys and girls. Sexual gender violence often consists of rape, genital mutilation, sexual slavery, gang rape, and torture (the insertion of objects into cavities).
Rape and sexual violence is not only a consequence of war, but it has become a deliberate military tactic or weapon of war. One reason combatants use rape or sexual violence is to humiliate the victims and their families (especially the men) from participating in the conflict. Rape is used to increase fear and insecurity and to promote a feeling of helplessness in the community to prevent insurgency. In addition to the brutal act of rape and sexual violence, many women are further violated as they are sold into sexual slavery or used as “comfort women”.
More Worried about Image
To bring attention to the escalation of rape in the DR Congo, a documentary film was created surrounding the life of Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecological surgeon and founder of the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who has treated victims of rape and sexual violence for more than 18 years and witnessed firsthand the physical and psychological effects of rape as a weapon of war. According to Dr Mukwege, rape for torture has little to do with sex and much more to do with power through a type of terrorism – a way to control the population. The government placed a ban on the film saying that it was harmful to the image of the country.
In order to end impunity for rape and sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and free itself from the title “rape capital of the world”, the country must face the reality that there is a problem. It needs to take a stand against rape and sexual violence and it has to hold perpetrators – regardless of position of power – accountable.
Change through Education
In 1995, the Beijing Declaration took a giant step in advancing women’s rights around the globe. Sadly, the efforts have fallen short of protecting women from rape and sexual violence especially during conflict. This is particularly true in the DR Congo.
However, more than offering protection to women there needs to be more done to educate the population (especially the men) on the consequences of rape and sexual violence. Men who brutally assault women and girls, taking their ability to conceive and birth children, rob the community of their future. For the Democratic Republic of Congo, addressing the epidemic of rape and sexual violence is a matter of preserving humanity.
Featured Image: Through veils, disguises and curtains, women testify in a DRC military court to sexual violence. Credit: Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi