Army and rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo have long used sexual and gender-based violence, or SGBV, as a weapon of war. Rape, sexual enslavement, and torture are inflicted on women, children, and men to manipulate group psychologies and weaken social networks by instilling fear, distrust, and shame at multiple levels of a community. As new hope for peace in Congo emerges with high-level international support for regional peace talks, increased armed group defections, and increasing corporate engagement toward building a clean minerals trade, a Enough Project new report highlights the importance of addressing the issue of SGBV as integral to establishing lasting peace.
SGBV in Congo is a practice entrenched by widespread impunity and gender inequality norms, and includes rape, certain forms of torture, sexual threats, exploitation, domestic violence, sexual enslavement, and involuntary prostitution. Statistics on the crisis are imprecise due to underreporting and outdated census information; however, one study published in 2011 in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that as of 2009 some 1.92 million Congolese women had been raped at some point in their lifetime, 462,293 had been raped in the previous year. Sexual violence in war leaves legacies of trauma, displacement, and sexual violence. Therefore, policymakers driving Congo’s peace process must address this crisis alongside other concerns or risk allowing it to persist beyond any potential cessation of armed hostilities.
The report, “Interrupting the Silence: Addressing Congo’s Sexual Violence Crisis within the Great Lakes Regional Peace Process,” demonstrates a clear link between sexual violence in the Congo and other drivers of conflict, including impunity for war crimes and the lucrative conflict minerals trade. Minerals and other resources fund and motivate armed groups to use rape, sexual torture, and enslavement to gain control over territory and trading routes. Although local and international efforts have helped reduce the illegal trade of tin, tantalum and tungsten, increased national and international efforts are needed to curb violent informal gold trade in the Congo. Trade is motivated and fueled by minerals they smuggle, but the kingpins of these networks exert power and control through the use of sexual violence against civilians, leaving whole communities traumatized and disenfranchised.
The report argues that one of the major features contributing to the perpetuation of SGBV is impunity. As the report discusses, “No high-level commanders have been convicted of sexual violence crimes committed in Congo, and international jurisprudence has been slow to develop […] This failure to prosecute…has sent a message to military leaders, rebel commanders, and civilians that rape and other forms of sexual violence will largely be tolerated as a side effect of war.” Although some trials have taken place against low-ranking army soldiers for rape, low standards of evidence, inadequate due process standards, and insufficient witness protection have undermined the safety of victims, rights of the accused, and the ability of Congo’s judicial system to combat impunity.
Holly Dranginis, Enough Project Policy Associate and author of the report, states:
"Congo’s peace process, with its renewed momentum and unprecedented international support, presents an opportunity to actually stop this horror. We need practical policy changes to protect women and girls and sophisticated, high-level prosecutions to send a clear message that those who use rape to exert power and control will not go unpunished."
The report calls for an intentional and committed effort to move from normative commitments to action on the ground. Initiatives should extend beyond reactionary and include prevention, such as community education programs and accountability. It emphasizes the establishment of a mixed chamber within Congo’s judiciary system to prosecute sexual violence as part of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It also calls for the integration of gender sensitivity in the police force and the establishment of specific mechanisms for women in security sector reform and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration initiatives. The report asserts, “Stakeholders in the peace process must develop the entire gamut of peace building tools with gender inclusivity and Congo’s SGBV crisis in mind. If they fail to do so, sexual and gender-based violence will become a lasting vestige of Congo’s armed conflict, undermining the development of a truly peaceful post-conflict society.”
Photo: A victim of a mass rape campaign in the town of Fizi, Democratic Republic of Congo (AP/Pete Muller)