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New Initiative Offers Hope for Survivors of Sexual Violence in Congo

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New Initiative Offers Hope for Survivors of Sexual Violence in Congo

Posted by Alissa Orlando on April 12, 2013

New Initiative Offers Hope for Survivors of Sexual Violence in Congo

On April 11, the Group of Eight, or G8, a forum of the world’s wealthiest countries, pledged to spend $35.4 million on preventing rape and sexual violence from being used as a weapon of war. The new fund will also benefit initiatives that put women and women's rights front and center in conflict resolution and devote resources to deterring and investigating wartime sexual atrocities and bringing the perpetrators responsible to justice. The U.S. will contribute $10 million to the new fund, which is spearheaded by British Foreign Minister William Hague and film star and U.N. Special Envoy Angelina Jolie. This initiative marks unprecedented commitment from the international community to the issues facing women during wartime.

The timing of this G8 initiative coincides with a BBC report revealing that government soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo were ordered to rape women by their superior officers. Rape is a major issue in eastern Congo, and there has been a dramatic increase in sexual violence there since October 2012. Although some claim that the majority of rapes in the region are civilian-perpetrated, the involvement of the state military, which is designed to protect civilians, in sexual violence is particularly disturbing.  On November 22, the Congolese army, or FARDC, was defeated by the M-23 rebel movement in Goma and forced to retreat to Minova, a market town about 30 miles (50 km) away.  According to the U.N., in the one-week period following FARDC’s defeat, two Congolese army battalions raped at least 126 women and killed two civilians. In a Guardian article, 60-year-old rape survivor Nzigire Chibalonza shares her story of the attacks at Minova.

"They beat us and beat us, and then they started to rape. Three men raped me – two from the front and one from behind… My head is still not right. I thought I had AIDS, and now my husband mocks me. He calls me the wife of a soldier, he has rejected me.”

For months, human rights activists have urged the U.N. to push for meaningful action against those responsible for the attacks, particularly since its peacekeeping mission cooperates closely with the FARDC. On March 25, the U.N. special envoy to Congo, Roger Meece, set an ultimatum for Congolese authorities: they had seven days to begin serious prosecution of the high-ranking soldiers accused of rape in Minova. Referencing its July 2011 Human Rights Due Diligence Policy, which prohibits cooperation with non-U.N. security forces with a track record of documented human rights violations, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUSCO, threatened to stop supporting the two Congolese army battalions implicated by the Minova allegations. On March 30, the Congolese government responded by signing a pledge to mitigate sexually-based violence.  The joint communiqué, signed by Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo Mapon and Zainab Hawa Bangura, the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, committed the government to fighting impunity for crimes of sexual violence, accelerating security sector reform efforts, creating vetting mechanisms when integrating former combatants into the national army, ensuring a better control of mineral resources, and providing greater support for services to survivors.

Nzigire’s horrifying story is just one in hundreds; however, despite MONUSCO’s threats and the Congolese government’s promises to stop the violence, only three low-ranking soldiers have been arrested: a sub-lieutenant, a corporal, and a South Kivu-based soldier of no rank.  FARDC soldiers who admitted to journalists that they had raped women said that they would not come forward until their colonels were prosecuted.

In response to the U.N. ultimatum, on April 11, the Congolese government suspended the commanding officers and deputy commanding officers of two units, as well as the commanding officer of eight other units. These 12 senior military officers are at the disposal of the military prosecutor, and an unstated number of rape suspects are currently under interrogations. This is progress towards bringing high-ranking commanding officers to justice and redress to the scores of women still suffering the physical and psychological ramifications of rape. The G8’s recent commitment to funding programs focused on these issues and the government’s suspension of 12 military officers are just the first steps towards securing justice for survivors of sexual violence in Congo.

Photo: Congolese survivor at a safe house; Credit: R. Feeley