Rape in War: Congo’s Weapon Of Choice Gets Renewed Scrutiny

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Lucienne M’Maroyhi of the Democratic Republic of Congo knows what it’s like to be used as a weapon of war. Several years ago, the mid-20-year-old was watching her two children with her brother when several Congolese guerilla militants broke into her home in the eastern part of the country, tied her up and began to rape her in front of her family.

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CREDIT: UN PHOTO / MARIE FRECHON
Female staff from the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) visit a women's shelter for victims of sexual abuse in Goma in 2009. Such attacks have earned Congo the dubious distinction of being the rape capital of the world, as one U.N. official put it.

When each of the six soldiers had finished, her brother was instructed to rape her as well, and when he refused, the soldiers stabbed him to death.

The militants abducted M’Maroyhi, left her children behind, and forced her into sexual slavery at their hub for almost a year. When the captors finally let her go, she found herself impregnated by one of her brother’s murders. Her husband, upon learning of the attack, abandoned her and the children.

When CBS’s “60 Minutes” highlighted M’Maroyhi’s story in January 2008, zeroing in on the systematic use of rape in Congo’s conflicts, the special report shocked millions of American viewers but only revealed the tip of the iceberg.

In August, more than two years after the eye-opening broadcast, nearly 250 women were reportedly raped over a four-day period in 13 villages in North Kivu Province, according to the United Nations. Many women said they were gang-raped by multiple attackers, in front of their husbands and children. In addition, the world body later found that another 257 women had been raped elsewhere, bringing the total number of victims to nearly 500 — including girls between the ages of 7 and 21, along with several men and boys. The initial attack was but a few miles from a U.N. base. The rapes were allegedly carried out by both Congolese Mai Mai rebels and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR)

Surprisingly, M’Maroyhi’s story, along with this latest wave of rapes, are but needles in a haystack of systematic sexual and gender-based violence that has dominated the Congo for years. Although the United Nations estimates that 5 million people have been killed in Congo’s civil wars and guerilla skirmishes since the 1990s, the reality is that it’s more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in the vast African country, home to some 70 million people.

Militant groups in the Congo, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, FDLR, Rwanda’s Interahamwe and Mai Mai, all have a longstanding reputation for raping women in front of families and entire communities to instill terror among civilians — and shame among the victims. Oftentimes, government-backed security forces are just as complicit in raping the civilians they’re meant to protect.

The United Nations estimates that since 1998 hundreds of thousands of Congolese have been tortured, gang-raped, and suffered various forms of sexual violence. Thousands of women and young girls have had their genitals torn and mutilated, many damaged beyond repair. Children as young as 1 and as old as 100 have been molested, some infected with HIV. Stories of some of the more ruthless attacks involve soldiers inserting weapons inside women’s vaginas, including guns or machetes. Such sexual attacks have earned Congo the dubious distinction of being the rape capital of the world, as one U.N. official put it.

Old Phenomenon, New Lens

Rape in war is not a new phenomenon, but it has experienced a renewed focused in recent years under the lens of academia. Whereas the tremendous loss of life and inherent destruction of war have been widely recorded throughout history, the taboo nature of rape has largely been ignored at the official level.

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CREDIT: UN PHOTO / MARIE FRECHON
Survivors of sexual violence receive treatment at the Hospital of Panzi, a nonprofit health center in Congo's South Kivu region. This summer, in North Kivu Province, nearly 250 women were reportedly raped over a four-day period — many by multiple attackers, in front of their husbands and children.

Yet almost every conflict has seen an increase in gender-based violence since before the Peloponnesian War in 400 B.C. Women have been framed as the “spoils of war,” and rape is now recognized as a tactic of war — a powerful weapon used by all actors in a conflict.

“Sexual violence and rape have touched every country, especially during hard times,” said Kathleen Kuehnast, gender advisor at the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace (USIP). “It’s not unique to the DRC,” she added, referring to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But according to Kuehnast and other experts, the use of rape in the Congo is unprecedented because of the sheer number of women systematically and continuously being sexually abused for a multitude of motives. Research by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), in which abused Congolese women were interviewed about their traumatic experiences, showed that 80 percent were raped by an attacker in uniform, two-thirds were gang-raped by several men at once, and half of the assaults took place in the victims’ homes.

Authors of a USIP special report released this spring defined the use of rape by Congolese militias as “a tool to subjugate populations, instill fear, curtail movement and economic activity, stigmatize women, undermine community and family structures, contribute to bonding of perpetrators through the common act of rape, and in some cases, deliberately pollute the bloodline of the victimized population.”

To that end, rape is a brutally effective weapon of war — tearing apart the very fabric that often binds societies together. Oftentimes, women are not only the family caretakers, but also the breadwinners and backbone of their communities.

According to the United Nations, more than 15,000 rapes were reported between 2008 and 2009 in the Congo. Kuehnast cautions though that those figures are grossly underestimated and are merely the sum of those recorded by nongovernmental organizations and similar groups. The vast majority goes unreported for fear of reprisal. Kuehnast also noted that there is no legal framework to hold perpetrators accountable for these crimes, nor are there government outreach programs for victims.

“There is no infrastructure for reporting or recording rape in the Congo,” she said. “Who are you going to tell? Maybe you tell your friend, but what can they do?”

In addition, victims are silenced for a number of reasons. They often fear their rapists will come back for retribution if they tell someone. Kuehnast also said community rejection keeps women from reporting rape. Though widespread, rape is still taboo in the Congo, and victimized women are often humiliated and ousted from social networks, including their own families.

Inside Perpetrators’ Minds

Jocelyn Kelly, sexual and gender-based violence research coordinator for HHI, believes that research on rape in war predominantly narrows in on victims’ experiences. She took a different approach and focused one of the institute’s studies on the mindset of militants who rape Congolese women. By understanding perpetuators’ motives, she wrote, humanitarian workers can better understand the root of the problem that triggers sexual violence in the first place.

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CREDIT: UN PHOTO / MARTINE PERRET
Congolese villagers walk by members of the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) in 2006, when peacekeepers helped to ensure a smooth presidential election. More recently, however, many questioned why U.N. peacekeepers didn't find out sooner about this summer's mass rapes even though the rapes occurred in villages just miles from a U.N. base.

The results of the study, titled “Rape in War: Motives of Militia in DRC,” includes interviews done between January 2009 and February 2010 with 33 Mai Mai combatants ranging from ages 18 to 45. The project, published by USIP, is one of the first that recorded the thoughts and rationalizations of rapists. Interviews with the Mai Mai rebels confirmed that some military commanders ordered the raping of women. Soldiers said higher-ranking officers instructed them to abduct women and “give” them to their fellow rebels as rewards — with leaders having the first pick of the victims they desired.

“[The commander] will have his [girl] brought first before he can ask me to bring mine,” the report quoted one soldier. “That is exactly what I must do. You say: ‘Great chief, here is the girl you asked me to bring you.’”

Even interviewees who said they felt guilty for such actions argued that they had no choice. An interviewer asked one militant if he felt ashamed for raping a woman around his mother’s age. “A person like your mother!” the soldier responded, according to the report. “You should be ashamed. But in that particular case, it will be because of the military service that one can do it. But in my view, I do not find it moral to do such acts.”

In a culture where unquestioned obedience is demanded of militants, morality is often thrown to the wind. Half of the rebels interviewed implied that orders from commanders might as well be law. “Even if you do not want to, you are not given a chance to choose,” said one man. “You go — the body — but the soul is not there.”

According to “Rape in War,” some Mai Mai rebels interviewed also expressed personal reasons for rape, such as simply desiring a woman. This, according to Kelly, seemed to be a more expectable reason to rape. Yet the militants interviewed condemned and were outraged at the thought of penetrating a woman with a foreign object. They called such actions “evil.”

“I can say that such a person [who rapes women with foreign objects] is a killer, or he is less sane, because he has already raped the woman and has satisfied his needs. He should free her…. How can someone find it again interesting to kill or ill-treat such a partner?”

Kelly noted that the former soldier’s term for the victim — “partner” — showed just how normalized rape for pleasure was among some militants. She wrote that the militants interviewed “convince themselves that they are not exploiting civilians as long as they commit only certain acts of [sexual] violence.”

Another well-documented motive behind rape is pure profit. The Enough Project’s “Raise Hope for Congo” campaign has been working to increase awareness of Congo’s lucrative but often-illicit minerals trade. These conflict minerals, the group says, are emblematic of the country’s resource curse.

“The scramble to exploit the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s vast natural resources has been the principal driver of atrocities and conflict throughout Congo’s tortured history,” according to the Enough report “Ten Reasons Why Eastern Congo Is the Most Dangerous Place on Earth for Women.” “In eastern Congo today, resources are financing multiple armed groups that target the local population. Many of these armed groups use rape as a deliberate tactic to drive the local population away from mines and other areas that they wish to control. The twisted logic: terrorize the women first and everyone else will stay away.”

More than Militancy

According to an April 2010 study conducted by HHI, civilian-on-civilian rape has skyrocketed 17-fold between 2004 and 2008. The striking increase suggests that sexual violence in the Congo has become more than just a militant tactic — it’s a growing societal issue where sexual violence against women is widely accepted.

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CREDIT: UN PHOTO
Rwanda's "Village of Hope" offers refuge for rape victims. Neighboring Congo, however, lacks basic health, legal or education infrastructure to care for its victims. Although there are no exact figures, the U.N. estimates that since 1998, hundreds of thousands of Congolese have been tortured, gangraped, and suffered various forms of sexual violence.

“They are not perceived as equal citizens,” observed activist Eve Ensler in 2007. “I think what … these atrocities have done is to have, bizarrely, normalized rape. So now it’s not just the Congolese army and the factions that are raping the women; now it’s becoming normalized. Domestic rape and domestic battery has wildly increased in families.”

Indeed, as Kelly’s research shows, rape in the DRC is more ingrained than numbers and news reports suggest. It’s more than just victim and victimizer. Rape in the Congo is littered against a backdrop of severe poverty, failing education and health care systems, cultural and mystical beliefs, and a continual cycle of violence that permeates the country.

Gender roles in the Congo, as in many African countries, are strictly defined, contributing to sexual violence. Militants interviewed for “Rape in War” maintained that men were the decision-makers of the family while women raised children and oversaw household duties. The dismissive attitudes toward women, combined with their secondary societal status and the assumption that their purpose in life is to serve men, perpetuates rape.

According to Kuehnast, economic hardships also drive sexual violence. Poverty-stricken refugee camps, for example, have high rates of rape — a phenomenon not limited to the Congo. This summer, the women’s rights organization MADRE, in collaboration with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, released a report that detailed the alarming increase of rape among the 1 million earthquake refugees in Port-au-Prince. Kuehnast also pointed out that rape has increased in the United States since the economic crisis began in 2008. In that regard, Congo fits the perfect profile. Not only has the region been engulfed in violence for decades, it’s also home to some of the world’s most impoverished communities.

Interviews with Congolese militants have shown that some pseudo-mystical-religious beliefs and customs encourage rape as well. Although the nation is almost entirely Christian, some soldiers believe rape brings them good luck in battle. In July, the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting wrote that such beliefs were involved in the ritual rape of six children under the age of 2. “I saw a soothsayer who told me I would get a lot of money by taking the virginity of my child and bringing him the blood, which he would then use for magic,” one man told the institute when confessing his crime against his 10-month-old daughter. “It was my poverty that led me to act in this way.”

The stunningly gruesome, inhumane act of raping infants suggests not only a woeful lack of education, but also brings to mind the question of mental illness. Kuehnast said that many perpetrators were prior victims of male-on-male sexual abuse and “are victims themselves.”

Holistic Societal Healing

From poverty and war to the devalued status of women, the complexities of rape in the Congo present a bevy of challenges to activists looking to end this grinding cycle of sexual violence. As the USIP has long pointed out, solutions will require no less than a complete societal transformation, involving a wide range of stakeholders — from militants to security forces to faith-based institutions to outside governments.

A natural first step of course is to end the culture of impunity and ensure that rebels and their leaders are imprisoned for their crimes. As Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch once pointed out: “In Congo, if someone starts an armed group or kills people, they have a better chance of becoming a senior minister or a general than being put behind bars.”

But even before that, an active legal framework must be put in place to enforce discipline. And somewhere in between law enforcement and prosecuting perpetrators, other critical issues such as economic opportunity, education and health care also need to be addressed. Women must feel free to report the crimes committed against them instead of fearing stigmatization from their communities. Education must become central to boost the status of women and quash dangerous mystical superstitions.

Despite the tough road ahead in the Congo, governments are beginning to formally recognize the use of rape as a weapon of war. Long before this summer’s horrific attacks grabbed headlines, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already been shining a light on Congo’s rape epidemic since visiting the region last year, calling the situation “truly one of mankind’s greatest atrocities.”

On June 19, 2008, the U.N. Security Council officially recognized sexual violence as a war crime and crime against humanity. This October also marks the 10th anniversary of U.N. Resolution 1325, which affirms the importance of women in maintaining peace and security. (USIP will be hosting a three-day conference on “Women and War” to mark the anniversary from Nov. 3 to 5.)

But it’s clear that beyond resolutions and recognition of the problem, tangible action still needs to be taken. To that end, the U.N. Security Council has been re-examining its ability to protect Congo’s civilian populations in light of this summer’s mass rapes. Suggestions that have been floated include the use of ham radios for peacekeepers to contact villagers in case of emergency, early warning systems, increased night patrols — especially in villages near transit routes for the minerals industry where rape often occurs — as well as efforts to better understand the underlying causes of this scourge.

Margot Wallström, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special representative for sexual violence in conflict, told reporters last month that the latest atrocities reinforce that “you cannot have a policy of zero tolerance backed by zero consequences.”

“So long as rapists remain at large, they hold the whole reputation of the Congo hostage,” she said, emphasizing that the recent mass rapes “were not an isolated incident but part of a broader pattern of widespread systemic rape and pillage.” She added that they also highlight how sexual violence “should never be dismissed as random, cultural or inevitable.” “The time when sexual violence is tolerated and sidelined as a product of war is over.”

Only time will tell though if the systematic war on Congo’s women is no longer tolerated by their country and by the international community.


About the Author

Rachael Bade is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 25, 2014