It is not for nothing that the Democratic Republic of Congo is notoriously nicknamed the ‘Rape Capital of the World’. There are countless stories of ‘legal’ rapes particularly in the eastern part of DRC, where it shares borders with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
Here is a story an anonymous rape victim, told to Solange Nyamulisa of Action Aid DRC:
We used to go and sleep in the bush but that night we didn’t because my father was back from the hospital. He had had a surgery and we could not leave him alone [in the house]. The fighters came and said, ‘why have you not gone to the bush?’. They said, ‘you must be spying! Why are you not doing what you are supposed to do?’ They didn’t even want to listen to my parents. They just killed my [unhealthy] father and mother. Then they raped me. People found me the next morning and took me to hospital. They shot me in the leg for the first time because I was resisting being raped. I was upset that they had killed my parents but I was not strong enough. So they shot me in the leg and started raping me. They have disabled me and ruined my life: I’m struggling to help my children survive. It’s a common problem here in eastern Congo. Whenever they have a problem here, they rape women and girls; it is as though it is the aim of the war because that is the first thing they do. I live in fear. Whenever I hear shooting, it is as if they are coming for me again. I know that if I have to go through another raping again, I won’t survive it.
Can it get more pathetic than that?
Ruth Maclean of The Guardian wrote (in 2016): ‘The mothers of Kavumu hardly sleep. But on rainy nights, they don’t even try. The rain pounds on their tin roofs so noisily that they worry they won’t hear rapists breaking in to steal their daughters. So they sit up all night, just watching their front doors’.
Another story from the Guardian:
A nearly full moon was the only light over the village of Kavumu, in eastern Congo, on the night of 26 December 2015. Just before midnight, a figure slipped quietly through the shadows along the red-earth tracts between huts and entered one of the wooden shacks. The intruder proceeded to take a three-year-old girl called Denise from the bed where she was sleeping next to her mother. Also at home that night were two women and three other children. None of them heard anything.
Denise’s mother woke up after midnight and groped for her daughter next to her on the mattress. She found only an empty space. An iron bar normally used to block the door was on the floor. A machete was stabbed into the ground outside the entrance. The women recognised the signs: this scenario had been repeated in Kavumu many times in the previous two and a half years.
The family woke the neighbours, who spanned out into search parties. In a nearby field, beneath stalks of sorghum, corn, and desiccated cassava, they soon found Denise lying on the wet dirt, wearing only her fuchsia-pink hoodie. She had been raped and was badly hurt, bleeding from between her legs.
The case of raping in DR Congo is more attention-arresting because of the scale it has gone up to. It is basically used as a war machine in its own right. The inter-ethnic rape is aimed at damaging homes and families based on the attendant social effects that rape victims face. And, believe me, that weapon is very potent because rape, beside the physical torture, has an eternal effect on the victims who might not overcome the trauma if they do not get psychological help.
The number of rape victims are in their thousands in the DR Congo. Since these mass rapes are rife in eastern DR Congo, many women have fled to the western part and have become refugees in the neighbouring Angola. However, Wikipedia claims that ‘Congolese women are being systematically raped in Angola as a means of expelling the Congolese living there. Among some 26,000 people expelled since April 2011, more than 21,000 cases of serious human rights violations, including rape, beating, torture and looting, have been documented by an Italian aid agency that has a UN grant to monitor the border. Human Rights Watch says the goal of the abuse is to instill fear.’ So, what will the Congolese women do?
The international community, concerned agencies and individuals like Dr Dennis Mukwege are coming in to save these lives and rehabilitate them. Dr Mukwege just won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in treating and caring for the rape victims in the DR Congo.
Many of the rape cases reported in the area are perpetrated by armed militiamen from the various ethnic groups. But there are also factual reports that even soldiers join in the act for other reasons aside inter-ethnic rivalries.
Back in 2011, for instance, a militia leader, Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, who has been implicated in numerous atrocities in the said region and declared wanted, was openly campaigning for a parliamentary seat in and he was not disturbed by the police. It was through the pressure from the UN that made Sheka surrender to the authorities to answer for his crimes. Sheka was accused to have ordered the mass rape of about 387 women, girls, boys and children.
One peculiar feature of the DR Congo sexual violence is that is not entirely against the women: men also get raped, though the percentage differs.
As far as Dr Mukwege is concerned, the aloofness and inability of the Congolese government to stem the conflicts is enough complicity in the rise of sexual violence in the country.
“The Congolese people live with unheard-of violence. Unheard of. He [Kabila] is responsible for not putting an end to the violence. His role is to protect his people and their belongings. We see that 20 years after it came to power, this government does not protect women. I’ve always said that it’s an illegal and illegitimate government. They must hand over to a caretaker government, which can organise free, fair, credible elections, and this transition must also put in place the foundations to build a solid democracy. I think we’ll have elections on 23 December, but I think we’ll elect the same people, and the same actors will produce the same system that perpetuates the violence. The December elections do not seem credible or transparent … it’s a parody of an election.”
As for Dr Jo Lusi, founder of the Heal Africa hospital and Christian organisation that has also helped thousands of rape survivors, “The government doesn’t exist, except when they’re collecting tax or trying to show the world something. The problem of health, of education, of conflict management is yours. You have to install institutions like mayors, police, local government. You have to bring prosecutors, military or civilian. You have to put perpetrators in jail. This is a huge effort and costs money, and we don’t have that much money.”
Furthermore, in a video cut from a documentary and shared on Youtube, Congolese soldiers testified to having raped women and said they would still do so in the future.
They told of how they believed that the rape of prepubertal girls increased one’s safety in wars. In order words, they raped to survive the conflict. Rape also made their charms more potent. One respondent said the ladies themselves understood the situation and allowed themselves to get raped as they were helping the cause of the tribe! It was not a crime anymore: the soldiers had the right to rape and the ladies had the moral burden of getting raped. This is as complicated as it can be.
Wikipedia also cites articles of the Constitution of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in which sexual violence is defined and criminalised as a form of gender-based violence and gender discrimination (article 14); a cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment (article 16); a crime against humanity (article 15); and a violation of an individual’s right to peace (article 52). Congolese law draws a distinction between rape and systematic rape, sexual violence being a crime against the state and systematic sexual violence as an international crime.
So, is the Kabila crew having their hands tied because this is systematic? Here comes another election in December. Will the Congolese bear this in mind when they vote?
Dr Mukwege told the UN in 2012: The women victims of sexual violence in Eastern DRC are in dishonor. I constantly with my own eyes see the elder women, the young girls, the mothers and even the babies dishonored. Still today, many are subjected to sexual slavery; others are used as a weapon of war. Their organs are exposed to the most abhorrent ill-treatment. And this has been going on for 16 years! 16 years of errancy; 16 years of torture; 16 years of mutilation; 16 years of the destruction of women, the only vital Congolese resources; 16 years of destruction of an entire society.
The onus is on the government of DR Congo: this sexual violence cannot stop until the conflicts are brought to an end.
McDike Dimkpa is a contributor to The African Progressive Economist and the opinions expressed here are his own.