'We must do better' in combating mass rape in Congo

The United Nations admits its peacekeepers failed to protect victims of mass rape in eastern Congo. In an area where rape has become a weapon of war, the UN's pledge to 'do better' must be more than a promise.

A year ago, the practice of mass rape by militias in eastern Congo made headlines in the United States as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the region to speak out against rape as a weapon of war.

The subject has again reverberated outside that war-torn zone in the heart of Africa. On Tuesday, the United Nations admitted its peacekeepers “failed” to protect civilians from systematic rapes by armed combatants in eastern Congo at the end of July and into August.

During this time, 242 rapes reportedly occurred in and around the village of Luvungi, just about 20 miles from a UN base. In total, more than 500 rapes have occurred in the region since July, according to the UN.

Primary responsibility for prevention lies with the Democratic Republic of Congo, said Atul Khare, UN assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping. But “our actions were not adequate, resulting in unacceptable brutalization of the population of the villages in the area. We must do better.”

Recognizing the need to do better is helpful in problem solving. And following words with acts is imperative in this exceptionally heart-rending case.

Congo is known as the “rape capital of the world.” The reasons for this are complex and numerous. One of them is war. Though a 2002 peace agreement ended what has been called the deadliest conflict since World War II (more than 5 million killed), that’s not the reality for eastern Congo.

Militias still vie for control of this mineral-rich area, which is also the hiding ground for Hutu rebels chased out of Rwanda after the 1994 genocide of ethnic Tutsis in that neighboring country. Many of the rapes have been attributed to the Hutu rebels and to Congolese insurgents fighting the central government in Kinshasa.

Another cause is a type of thinking by many men under these circumstances that women are spoils of war, that they are compensation for poorly paid soldiers and rebels, that they are there to satisfy desires on demand, and that terrorizing them means control of an area.

Gang rapes also reflect a certain hierarchy in militias, with commanders leading the way. And with a legacy of war stretching back more than a decade, rape has become part of being a young combatant. The sexual violence is begetting more violence.

More than 15,000 rapes have been reported in Congo in 2008 and 2009, including children, according to the UN. The effects of these crimes are also complex and numerous.

Beyond physical and psychological harm, the victims suffer from social stigma. They’re often shunned by their husbands and their communities. Village cohesion breaks down. Husbands, too, suffer from a feeling of helplessness in protecting their wives, and children suffer from watching their mothers brutalized.

Even while the UN admitted its failings, officials offered several areas for improvement. In a vast region where communication is poor for lack of roads and phones, Mr. Khare said peacekeepers would go on more night patrols and do more random checks of communities. He also urged installation of high-frequency radio repeaters so endangered villages can sound the alarm.

Bringing perpetrators to swift justice is critical, he and others say, and Khare emphasized the need for sanctions against the individual leaders of the various rebel groups. On Sept. 1, the UN sent 750 peacekeepers to back Congolese forces in search of those who carried out the recent attacks. So far, 27 rebels have surrendered and four have been arrested.

Humanitarian workers who care for the rape victims of the Congo are humbled by the resilience of many of these women. But the larger point is to do a much better job at preventing sexual violence. “We must do better,” applies not just to the UN, but to Congo and its neighbors.

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