Rape in the Congo: a silenced war

Report: written by Rayyan Sorefan.

The Democratic republic of Congo (DRC) is infamous for being the ‘Rape Capital of the world’. Recent reports on the subject have shown that an astonishing 39.7 percent of women and 23.6 percent of men have been exposed to sexual violence during their lifetime within eastern DRC.

The country’s battle with sexual violence is not a new phenomenon but one which has been well documented as having occurred en masse in numerous other regions such as in Bosnia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, Haiti and Uganda. The purposes of sexual violence cannot simply be explained with reference to a particular cause be it cultural or biological.

Lack of security is a significant cause of sexual violence. Security is usually associated with a strong judiciary system upholding the rule of law and subsequently safeguarding the fundamental rights of individuals. But this is simply a concupiscence illusion for people who are incredibly vulnerable to sexual violence because they have no form of guaranteed protection from the rebel groups such as FDLR, M23 rebels.

Furthermore, the normalisation of rape and other forms of sexual violence in DR Congo has gradually degenerated the guilt associated with these extreme criminal acts. As such, civilians and combatants on all sides can engage in such activities because their comrades and/or commanders are engaging in similar activities to reap the ‘spoils of war’. Soldiers are often encouraged to engage in violent sexual acts to achieve military objectives. In some cases, rape has often been used as a way to demoralise a population or emphasise their supremacy towards the victims. Given that many individuals engage in such acts already, the added encouragement and deceitful ideology act as added encouragement to perpetrators.

Rape victims: a lifetime of consequence  

The health concerns for the victims of these such horrific and degrading criminal acts are grave. Not only do most victims contract HIV as a result of rape, they also suffer physical damage from severed and broken limbs to vesicovaginal fistulas and STIs. The spread of the disease is often used as a weapon of war to punish the victims. It is to note that the current rate of HIV victims in the eastern region of DRC is approximately 20 percent, an alarmingly high rate for a population of over 80 million.

On the social level, the victims also struggle phenomenally with the hardship of being a rape victim. Some cultures are analogous to racial policy of Nazi Germany where ‘unterrmensch’ was used to describe inferior people. Rape survivors are shunned away from career opportunities or even communal activities. This has subsequently led to woman seeking shelter in Umoja, a village in Northern Kenya where men are banned to enter. It was founded in 1990 by 15 rape survivors. The village accommodates all individuals who have suffered from rape, domestic violence and female genital mutilation. The village is symbolic for women who can develop a sense of autonomy, leadership and free speech. Under the ‘tree of speech’, women gather to make decisions and tell stories.

A gloomy picture is drawn depicting a hopeless nation where no positive developments can be achieved. However, efforts have been made by the international community throughout the recent years to rectify this situation. It was not until the horrific mass rape of women in Yugoslavia that the issue of sexual violence came to the attention of the UN security council. Ever since then, a number of resolutions have been passed such as 2122 (2013) to empower women and encourage peace building.

Failed efforts of the United Nations

The United Nations sent peacekeepers to the DR Congo nearly three years ago. Most of the peacekeepers were sent from France and neighbouring African countries but it was recently reported that more than 100 victims were sexually abused by peacekeepers. One of the peacekeepers is accused of raping a young 12-year-old girl behind a truck at the time when peacekeeping troops descended in a district in search of a terrorist suspect. The girl told Amnesty International “When I cried, he slapped me hard and put his hand over my mouth.”

There has been a 25 percent increase in sexual abuse allegations since 2014 against UN staff and this has phenomenally affected peacekeeping operations in many countries including the DR Congo, Haiti and Sudan.

Peter Wilson, the UK’s representative to the United Nations states, told CNN:“When the most vulnerable in this world — women and children who have lost everything — when they look to the United Nations for protection, they should do so in the belief that their suffering is over, not just beginning.”

The rape allegations have failed to be properly investigated by the relevant UN officials and has recently led to many UN Senior officials such as Anders Kompass, to resign, because he was horrified by “the complete impunity for those who have been found to have, in various degrees, abused their authority.” These allegations albeit, non-conclusive have tarnished the credibility and image of the United Nations.

Putting a stop to the violent epidemic

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a transforming country – surging in natural resources and undergoing significant economic progress, however the issue of rape is letting down the country’s prosperity and sense of freedom. Although the solutions will take a long time to materialise, they could change the country’s rape reputation once and for all.

The international community has failed to adequately address the root causes of sexual and gender-based violence in the DR Congo but rather the symptoms. This is unsuitable especially when long-term solutions are concerned. The key to an effective approach towards the issues at hand are as follows:

Education

As mentioned previously, the normalisation of rape and sexual violence has played a pivotal role over the recent decades in shaping the DR Congo to become the ‘Rape capital of the world’. The international community, more specifically the UN Human Rights Council can engage directly with local communities to help amend the educational programmes taught at all stages.

The establishment of education at all levels of society can help to significantly address the health consequences associated with the spread of HIV and other related medical diseases. Furthermore, promoting gender equality at school, with the help of local leaders, can tremendously have a positive impact on children and adults influenced by their viewpoints. This is not an innovative policy but one which has already been implemented in coordination with UNDP and UNICEF in the Ivory Coast, Albania and Somalia.

Rehabilitation

A harsh and undeserving reality faces the victims of sexual abuse as they often become the outcast of local communities and families. This ingrained ideology prevents a significant proportion of those affected to speak out and seek help and protection. The UNHCR can help create public awareness programmes which encourage a new stereotype of gender equality taking up equal and autonomous positions. Furthermore, the implementation of a comprehensive rehabilitation program for the victims where immediate access to appropriate health care, provided by a joint international-local medical bodies, is also highly recommended to confront the issue. The provision of professional counsellors and support groups to be made available to children and adults would help reintegrate rape survivors back into society.

International Coordination

Millions of dollars have been sent as humanitarian aid to many conflict regions across the world only to be handed directly to the ruthless dictators and corrupt individuals leading their country into poverty and misery. The DR Congo is no different. A strict monitoring system should be maintained to help see fit that the funds are allocated specifically to what it was requested for. Humanitarian aid should be felt predominantly by the people and not a handful of elites. Only then will the international community help eradicate poverty and set a precedent in neighbouring African countries.

Judiciary

As Tiffany Madison once said: “When the rule of law disappears, we are ruled by the whims of men. DR Congo has established an elaborate penal code criminalising sexual and gender-based violence albeit, it has become widely known that some perpetrators of such illicit activities are given de facto immunity and thus lack prosecution.

The United Nations has set up ‘mobile courts’ to increase access to the judiciary but this has had very little success in DR Congo for a number of reasons. Individuals still need to travel hundreds of miles to access the courts without the added security that true justice will be served.

A more comprehensive approach would request the aid of the International Court Justice to establish a judiciary training, in accordance with national legislation program for local judges to straighten its judicial system and fight bureaucracy and corruption. The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) could help organise lobbying initiatives at a national level to amend the current legislation in order to enable proceedings to move forward notwithstanding the number of judges present. All these proposed recommendations and suggestions would inevitably enable the courts to run smoothly and more efficiently.

The reason behind the continuous failure to combat rape is transparent:“You can rape or abuse women and girls, and you can get away with it,” said Lewis Mudge, an Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The international community has the power to put an end to these horrific crimes and help create a culture where gender equality and autonomy can truly flourish. There are long-term solutions, which are sustainable and deserve recognition. Any other way would result in DR Congo remaining in an exceedingly scandalous and pestilent environment.

 

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