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.

By , Correspondent

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    A sign in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo, reads ‘Never Again: Respect the Rights of Women.’
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In the Democratic Republic of Congo, sexual violence has become so common that the eastern provinces are sometimes called "the ground zero of rape."

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.

'Violence begets violence'

But the increasing prevalence of civilian rape is not unique to Congo, says Mukesh Kapila, a Sri Lankan physician and a former United Nations official in Darfur.

"Violent societies beget violent societies," especially when they refuse to acknowledge or seek accountability for wartime trauma, says Mr. Kapila.

Desiree Zwanck, a gender adviser to Heal Africa, says that civilian rape and military rape are actually mirror images of the same phenomenon: a lack of respect for women. "Wartime violence against women, and ... mass rape … is a magnified and very intense version of inconsideration, you could even say misogyny, that exists in most male-dominated societies," Ms. Zwanck says.

Part of Zwanck's work at Heal Africa involves mediating between rape survivors and their families, in part to help overcome the gender biases that she says underpin sexual violence. One useful tool, she says, is microcredit.

"A lot of families here are in such dire need that they are actually more inclined to accept the woman back into the household when there is an economic incentive for it," says Zwanck. "[Women] themselves feel this gives them an added value, and that their families and communities respect them more, when they are able to manage their own funds, their own livestock, or their own little boutique."

Other groups conduct outreach programs aimed at men, explaining what rape is and trying to instill a respect for a woman's right to refuse sex. But the message, says HHI's Kelly, isn't getting through. "It's great in our Westernized world that we all know more or less what sexual violence is and why it's wrong, but those messages aren't necessarily being conveyed to the youth of the DRC," she says. "They see sexual violence ... on a massive scale. They also don't see anyone getting punished for it."

Weak law enforcement

Congo has strong laws against sexual violence, but observers say they're rarely enforced. "It's difficult to prosecute perpetrators because they can buy off the police or a judge," says Ms. Kahatwa. "There's no guarantee of justice."

ABA's law clinic, funded in part by the US State Department, has guided more than 200 cases through the courts. Kahatwa says there have been only 30 verdicts so far, 28 of them convictions. The guilty have been sentenced to 20 years in jail.

Maria Eriksson Baaz, who interviewed 226 soldiers in eastern Congo and the capital of Kinshasa for Sweden's Nordic Africa Institute, found that soldiers themselves insist that only tough punishment can curb the crime.

Her report quotes one soldier's explanation of the need for public trials. "His wife will start to cry, his children will start to cry: 'Ahh, Papa.' Then other people who are watching will understand; they will start to be afraid: 'Ahh, so that is the way it is.' "

But Kapila says the long-term violence eastern Congo has experienced won't simply be adjudicated away. "You can't stop the violence in one generation," he says. "It will be at least a couple of generations."

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