Congo war leaves legacy of sexual violence against women
A 17-fold increase in civilian rape between 2004 and 2008 in the Democratic Republic of Congo underscores the wartime legacy of sexual violence.
Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, sexual violence has become so common that the eastern provinces are sometimes called "the ground zero of rape."Skip to next paragraph
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Tens of thousands of women here have been raped by armed combatants seeking to destroy communities by assaulting the women, who are often shunned and sometimes abandoned after sexual assaults. In Congo, it has become common to say rape is a weapon of war.
Or at least it was. New data suggest that rape by combatants is on the wane in eastern Congo. But a different trend indicates that crimes of war may have changed habits – for the worst. As the number of civilian perpetrators climbs, rape in the DRC is more than just a problem of war.
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An April 2010 study by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) found a 17-fold increase in civilian rapes between 2004 and 2008. The study surveyed more than 4,000 women, in the same years, who sought treatment at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu. "We think that this trend of increased civilian perpetrators suggests that there's been an acceptance of sexual violence by the Congolese society," says Susan Bartels, faculty member of HHI and lead researcher on the study.
"We also speculate that perhaps poorly rehabilitated and poorly reintegrated combatants are playing a role," she adds, "men who have left rebel groups but … continue to perpetrate crimes that perhaps were ongoing while they were armed combatants."
A similar change appears to be taking place farther north. In Goma, capital of North Kivu and home to dozens of humanitarian organizations, the number of women reporting having been raped by military men has dropped, according to legal advocates working in partnership with the Heal Africa hospital. But here, too, the number of civilian rapes is climbing.
"Before, [rape] was like a gun in a war," says Mireille Kahatwa Amani, a program director at a legal clinic run by the American Bar Association (ABA). "Today, things have cooled down….But the [mind-set] remains in people, especially in soldiers."
Jocelyn Kelly, also of HHI, says one reason for the rise in civilian rapes may be a breakdown of social structures. "If an older man was bothering young girls and engaging in inappropriate behavior, theoretically the leadership would come together … and say, 'That's unacceptable,' " she says.
The war has displaced many leaders, destroying those structures. "We hear from both men and women that it's no longer easy to enforce social mores," Ms. Kelly says.