About congo

Sexual violence in DRC

A history of conflict
Ever since, Congo’s leaders competed for power and exploited the country’s immense wealth in natural resources such as gold, diamond, coltan and copper. Little was used to raise the standard of living of the citizens. Thirty-two years of despotic governance by ex-dictator Mobutu left the country’s physical, political and social infrastructure shattered. In 1996, rebel leader Laurent Kabila started Congo’s first war and Mobutu was toppled. Rwanda and Burundi supported him in exchange for economic benefits. But Kabila failed to live up to these promises and his old allies launched the RCD rebel group that fought him (1998). In addition, numerous ethnic-based rebel groups and localised armed groups sprang up (Mayi Mayi). Also a vast number of Hutu extremists (Interahamwe/FDLR) that had fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide had put up semi-permanent military camps in the forests of Eastern Congo. At the height of the war in 1998 over 15 armed groups were fighting in the central and eastern part of Congo. Since that time, over 5.4 Congolese have died, mostly from war-related hunger and disease.(1)

Fragile peace
The 1999 peace agreement was followed by the deployment of the largest UN Peace Keeping mission in the world (MONUC, 17,000 soldiers). But the east and the west of Congo remained divided, accumulating in the murder of Laurent Kabila by one of his own bodyguards in 2002. His son Joseph Kabila took over and signed another peace agreement that included also Rwanda (2002). This opened the way for the installation of a transitional government in 2003 and in 2006, for the first time since its independence, DR Congo organised democratic elections.

Persistent insecurity
Despite these efforts, especially large areas of eastern DRC have remained unstable. In October 2008 fighting broke out in North Kivu between the rebels of the Tutsi dominated CNDP of Laurent Nkunda, the FARDC and other local militia. Also the Interahamwe/FDLR continue to pose a vast security threat to the population in North and South Kivu. Violence recently increased as a reaction to the joint military operation (Kimya I and II) that was initiated early 2009 by the FARDC, Rwanda’s army and the MONUC in order to repatriate the FDLR. As a result, over 1.5 million people are displaced in North and South Kivu alone.(2)

Sexual violence
Practically all armed groups exercised barbaric regimes based on looting, abduction, widespread killings and the illegal trade in natural resources. Also, in particular women (and children) fall victim to rape, sexual abuse and exploitation. Human Rights Watch estimates that between 1998 and 2003 “tens of thousands of women and girls in the eastern part of the country have suffered from sexual violence related crimes”.(3) In the meantime the figure has likely amounted to 150,000 victims. UNFPA (the UN agency coordinating work on sexual violence in Congo) reported that nation-wide, 15,996 new cases of sexual violence were registered in 2008, of which 4,820 cases in North Kivu alone.(4)

What makes sexual violence in Congo in particular gruesome is its scale and brutality. In fact, a number of armed groups used rape as a tactic of war to destabilise and dehumanise entire communities. Women and girls are gang rape in front of their family, men are forced to have sex with their children or livestock, and often the sexual organs are severely mutilated (thrusting weapons into the vagina, etc.). Another tactic includes sexual slavery when women are abducted and forced to become the ‘wife’ of one or more commanders.

Also the Congolese national army, FARDC, and Congo’s police force are associated with sexual violence. According to MONUC, 54% of all sexual violence cases reported in the first six months of 2007 were committed by FARDC soldiers.(5) Added to this, citizens increasingly commit rape and sometimes it is linked with tribal abduction practices executed to forge a marriage.(6) The fact that rape seems to become normalised, is also linked with domestic (sexual) violence as many women are (violently) forced to have frequently sex with their husbands against their will. Finally, in Congo numerous MONUC soldiers and humanitarian workers have been linked with underage prostitution, rape and gang rape, often in exchange for food or money.(7)

Why does rape occur?

In many cases sexual abuse is triggered by peer pressure, the use of drugs, the imagined power that is felt when carrying a weapon, mounting sexual needs when living in isolation in the bush for a long time, and the belief that women are ‘war booty’ when conquering a village. Also weak or even chaotic military leadership stimulates a situation in which rape is ‘tolerated’. Next to these excesses, a number of armed groups use rape as a tactic of war to destabilise and dehumanise entire communities, often along ethic lines. Finally, within some Congolese Mayi Mayi rebel groups, sexual violence is mingled with fetishism, whereby it is believed raping or mutilating women from the enemy provides protection.

Yet, one of the largest explanations for why rape continues is widespread impunity, which is influenced by the poor functioning of the Congolese (military) justice system. First of all, in terms of numbers Congo’s justice system is insufficient for such a vast country. At independence of Congo in 1960, there was not a single Congolese lawyer in practice. Today it is estimated that there are only 1.500 judges and lawyers active. On top of that, access to justice for rural communities is extremely limited as tribunals are located in cities. Another important shortcoming in Congo’s justice system is that judges, lawyers and other personnel are not well-trained since effective national training programs fall short. As a consequence, criminal cases are generally poorly handled. For example, pre-trial investigation is usually one-sided or in some cases, does not take place at all. Also, investigation and prosecution is often done by the state prosecutor casting doubt on objectivity. But apart from these systemic flaws, perhaps the biggest factor explaining impunity in Congo is the lack of will of individuals. While there are some exceptions, the work of most juridical personnel is guided by favoritism whereby friends, relatives or influential persons can count on their support, even if they are the ones standing trial. In most cases this is reinforced by bribery and other types of corruption.

Consequences and assistance
Sexual violence has a severe impact on the stability of communities and its consequences include psychological and physical trauma. For example, 20% of Congo’s known rape victims have internal injuries, 22% have become HIV positive through rape and 10% fall pregnant by their rapist. Caused by shame, stigmatisation and cultural taboos 60% of the women raped are rejected by their family and community members, especially when they conceived a ‘bastard’ child through rape.(8) Over the last couple of years, a large number of (inter)national aid agencies began providing assistance to victims. This includes medical treatment, psychological, legal assistance for prosecuting their rapist and the support of income generating activities.

Congo’s army and reform processes

Congo’s army
Congo’s army (the FARDC) is geographically subdivided into 10 military regions and officially counts 130,000 soldiers. In practice this number is thought to be much higher because registration is nearly absent and the line between the official army and rebel groups is blurred. Also the presidential Republican Guard, president Kabila’s private army, is disproportionally large in size and present all over the country. The FARDC does have a very poor reputation when it comes to professionalism, military conduct and the general conditions under which the army operate. Military training and basic education on roles, responsibilities and the protective function of the army falls seriously short. Also, soldiers get irregularly paid and usually live in poor housing conditions in military camps. Largely triggered by the lack of sound army management, a vast number of soldiers use their weapon to rob, rape and kill. Impunity surrounding such crimes is possibly even more pronounced within the army hierarchy than in society in general.

Since 2004 Congo has started a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme for the numerous rebel groups present in the country. It focused on demobilising those combatants that had no longer a place in the reformed army (youth, elderly and volunteers that wanted to leave the army). The scheme was also meant to reduce the overall number of soldiers. Until 2006, approximately 125,000 ex-combatants were given $110 and $25 on a monthly basis (12 times) as well as an integration kit to start a new life (household materials, etc.). However, the programme did not cater for a sustainable follow-up on the reintegration on community level as there was little cooperation with appropriate civil society structures. Since most ex-combatants are traumatised and have nothing to occupy them, they may become violent, criminal or develop other social dysfunctions. This makes it even more difficult for them to become accepted by their families and heightens the risk of re-entering their old rebel movements.

Reintegration of rebels into the army
An additional demobilisation scheme has been designed for Eastern Congo: the state-driven Amani programme. This scheme targets all armed groups operating in the East with ‘brassage’, involving the training and reintegration ex-combatants into the national army. When integrated, they can be deployed all over the country whereas under the ‘mixage’ (the precedent of the brassage that collapsed in 2007) they remained stationed in their area of origin. Mixage, it proved, only reinforced the divisional power of ex-rebels over the national army. Part of the brassage process includes grading. This creates often anger and dissatisfaction as many high ranking rebels may not get a similar ranking in the army (due to the lack of such ranks but also because the needed qualifications are not met). At the same time, however, a large number of incapable ex-rebels occupy high command posts in the army and have superiority over their much smarter subalterns. Also, certain rebel groups are favoured over others. A general criticism of the reintegration process is that these type of deficiencies in training and management provides a recipe for misconduct and crimes.

Psycho-social challenges
Next to the military challenges of properly training the army and the assurance of appropriate living conditions for soldiers, for which a number of programs are currently being implemented by international donors, there lies also a psychosocial challenge of reducing trauma within soldiers and ex-combatants. Many have seen, experienced and committed terrible crimes during the conflict and continue to suffer from it. An alarming number is severely depressed, aggressive, alcoholic or develops the so-called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental condition characterised by flashbacks, emotional detachment, jumpiness, overreaction and sleeping disorders. Patients tend to avoid activities, places, and people, and have trouble with relationships. Not surprisingly, domestic violence within such families is high, affecting the entire family and immediate surrounding.(9) Psycho-social support within the context of military reform is therefore indispensible for the creation of a professional and healthy army and international attention for this element needs to be stepped up.

Written by Nynke Douma


1 Reuters, 29th July 2008.
2 Internal Diplacement Monitoring Centre (July 2009).
3 Human Rights Watch, 2005.
4 Human Rights Watch, 2009, p.14.
5 Human Rights Watch, 2009, p.21.
6 Own research in Maniema province, 2008.
7 Csáky, 2008.
8 Figures from the Ministry of Health/Provincial Synergy Against Sexual Violence, 2007.
9 http://www.emedicinehealth.com/post-traumatic_stress_disorder_ptsd/page3_em.htm#Post traumatic%20Stress%20Disorder%20Symptoms