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The DRC Rape Crisis: Perception, Misperception, & Unintended Consequences

The following remarks were presented by Laura Seay on February 1, 2012, at a conference hosted by the the War Crimes Research Office and the Women and International Law Program at American University entitled “Addressing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Conflict and Post-Conflict Settings: National and International Strategies.”

Today I want to discuss the question of legal responses to sexual and gender-based violence in the Congolese context, with a particular focus on the latest research on the crisis and what it tells us about who is committing these crimes, who the victims are, and what needs to be done to address the problem. In doing so, I will first discuss the latest research on the rape crisis in the Congo, then problematize some of what we think we know about it. I will close by raising challenges for our response to the crisis.

At the outset, it is very important to note that while the scale of the DRC rape crisis is new, with reported cases having skyrocketed in the last ten to fifteen years of violent conflict, and having gotten considerably more attention both locally and internationally in the last seven or eight years, other forms of violence against Congolese women are not new. There were very few pre-war legal protections against rape, domestic abuse, and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. The anti-rape law passed since the wars officially ended is far stronger than anything that existed prior to the violence.

Likewise, barriers to justice for survivors of SGBV were already high before the wars. Impunity and non-functioning courts were already a problem under Mobutu from the early 1980’s, when the Congolese state began to collapse. It was very common to have to pay bribes to have a case heard in court, judicial staff were not paid regular salaries by the state for their services, and the physical infrastructure of the court system was already crumbling.

The problems underlying the rape crisis in the DRC are longstanding challenges, based on structural deficiencies and traditional cultural norms. This means that there are no silver bullets for rebuilding the Congolese justice sector. Most Congolese alive today have never lived in a functional society in which the government provides and regulates services and operates according to the rule of law. However, despite this, the Congolese population genuinely wants the judicial and other public services that most have never experienced. Civil society leaders in the areas most affected by the wars are deeply committed to building a justice system that works and to ending impunity and protecting civilians. There is reason to hope.

Another key issue in thinking about the context in which the rape crisis is occurring is that the DRC conflict situation has changed considerably in the last five to seven years. The best surveys and studies we have on the rape crisis used data collected at the latest in 2008. A widely cited study from the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) that noted that there are 48 rapes per hour in the Congo relies on data collected in 2006.[1] But there have been significant changes in the DRC security situation since that time. In some places, the security situation has greatly improved. For example, Ituri district saw its war end in 2008. The presence of armed actors in that area is much reduced, and we would expect that the numbers of rapes committed in that region are much lower today. In other areas, violence has gotten worse. Territories around Dungu, which is well outside of the epicenter of eastern Congolese violence and which was not a location in which many rapes were being recorded in 2006, is now significantly more dangerous due to the presence of the Ugandan rebel movement, the Lord’s Resistance Army. The lesson here is that while the situation for Congolese civilian protection is still terrible by any reasonable standard, there has been some improvement in some places. I strongly suspect that a survey taken today would find significantly lower occurrences of rape than did 2006 data collection efforts.

What we do know from the data we have is that the nature of rapes has changed. As a 2008 Oxfam/Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) study indicates, about 40% of rapes are committed not by soldiers or rebels, but by civilians.[2] Oxfam/HHI attributes this change partly to demobilization (that is, some of the civilian-committed rapes are perpetrated by civilians who used to be soldiers), but also to a general breakdown in civility in Congolese society. The AJPH study found that male-on-male rape is an increasing problem, suggesting that the narrative of Congolese women and girls as victims is incomplete.

There is also evidence that problematizes the common claim that rape is a “weapon of war” in the Congo. A study by Duroch and colleagues on rape in Ituri found that rape there was used to terrorize women, but is not part of a military strategy designed to achieve particular ends.[3] In South Kivu, however, Moore finds that rape is clearly a tactic used to achieve strategic goals. The AJPH study also found that rape is a major problem well outside of the eastern regions experiencing violent conflict. There are, for example, many rape cases in Equateur province, as well as finding that marital/intimate partner rape is an enormous problem in the DRC. An additional study found that female-perpetrated rapes are more problematic than previously known.[4]

Finally, we know that non-rape forms of SGBV are still very common. Domestic abuse – particularly wife beating – is still common and in many traditional communities in which women are essentially their husband’s property, beating wives is often seen as a husband’s right. There is virtually no international attention to this problem, though millions of Congolese women suffer the consequences of such attitudes.

As the international community became increasingly aware of the horrors being perpetrated in the DRC, efforts to help survivors have grown. Whether they learned about the crisis from stories in the New York Times or after watching a segment on Oprah, average citizens and policy makers both responded with donations and efforts to be more engaged with local health care providers serving SGBV survivors. This was a good thing; Congolese SGBV survivors now have far greater access to health care and psychosocial support than they did even five years ago. However, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the overarching focus on rape has unintentionally created some perverse incentives. This topic needs more study, but widespread accounts from the field indicate that because rape survivors are given access to health care, food, education, security, potential legal recourse, and job training, some women are falsely presenting themselves as rape victims in order to access needed services.

Donors who were rightfully shocked by the stories of rape in the Congo have poured money into that sector to help victims, but the problem is that this focus left other critical problems under- or unfunded. A Congolese woman who has a fistula sustained as the result of rape or problems during childbirth has a reasonable chance of getting treatment, but a woman who is not a rape survivor suffering from breast cancer faces a death sentence. In their good and well-intentioned efforts to help rape survivors, donors may have unintentionally created a growing incentive to falsely present as a rape survivors because similar services are largely unavailable to women who are not rape survivors. The focus on women and girls as the primary victims in this crisis means that donors have shifted priorities in other areas as well; some anecdotal evidence suggests that in some areas of eastern DRC, because donors wanted to help girls specifically, now vaccination funds are available for girls, but not boys. This is obviously bad for public health and herd immunity in a place that still registers alarming rates of polio and other preventable infectious diseases. It demonstrates why broad-based community and family development are needed in order to help all women and all families to thrive, not just those who suffer such horrors.

How do we address the DRC rape crisis in an effective and sustainable manner? The question of rebuilding civility is absolutely key, as is addressing local conceptions of masculinity and relationships between men and women. Donors and non-governmental organizations should expand their efforts to start community conversations with men’s groups, religious institutions, and other civil society organizations about women not being property, wife beating being abuse, and a woman’s right to refuse intercourse even in marriage. Congolese communities are already discussing these issues, and most Congolese community leaders reject the idea that rape should be normal or tolerated. They are already discussing issues of community responsibility to protect women and others, as well as male responsibility to prevent and stop these crimes.

Communities may also be able to help address the problem of soldier-perpetrated rape. Baaz and Stern interviewed Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) soldiers and found that those soldiers perceive men who rape as being “unmasculine” because “real men” can gain sexual access to women without raping.[5] While it is possible that those soldiers lied to Baaz and Stern, their findings do suggest that there is at least some basis to build upon in conversations with military members. If nothing else, the soldiers knew that they should at least say to researchers that they believe rape to be a sign of weakness.

The global focus on the DRC’s rape crisis is understandable. No one with a conscience or sense of responsibility to humanity could ignore the crisis. But it is critical to remember that rape actually affects a fairly narrow segment of Congolese women. Yes, the rape crisis affects an appalling number of people, but more than 30 million Congolese women and girls are not rape survivors. These women still face incredible levels of violence manifested throughout their lives. Whether it’s dealing with domestic abuse, lack of maternal health care, discrimination in educational opportunities, lack of access to general health care, or a myriad of other issues, Congolese women have difficult lives. They need support. Congolese women’s group civil society leaders desperately want a broader international agenda that takes these wider issues into account. The challenge for those who want to help is figuring out how to respond effectively both to the horrific SGBV and to other, more mundane issues that affect a far broader swath of society.

What should international actors do? For one, we must broaden our focus to account for the need for help in all sectors. We have to address impunity broadly, not just in the SGBV crimes sector, but also in terms of getting a full court system functioning again. The proposed mixed courts are a good idea, but these will likely only cover war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the wars and post-war violence. Likewise, the SGBV mobile court is a fantastic program helping to end impunity for rapists. But neither of these efforts help Congolese who need justice across society. All Congolese – male or female – deserve access to the institutions of justice no matter the crime or grievance. Most of the root causes of violence in DRC are based in the lack of the rule of law. Creating and re-establishing very simple courts dealing with mundane issues is absolutely key to rebuild that institution. Could we have mobile courts for contract enforcement, property disputes, and family law issues? Donors should fund and support justice sector reform in all sectors, not just the ones that tug at our heartstrings. Simple activities in the criminal justice sector such as ensuring that prisons have doors and that guards are paid regular and sufficient salaries would also help to fight impunity and ensure that those convicted of crimes serve their sentences.

On the military side, we can also think about incentives to get soldiers to stop raping women. The United States should greatly expand its FARDC training and professionalization efforts through the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). Innovative projects like the Texas A&M University Borlaug Institute’s collaboration with AFRICOM to teach FARDC soldiers to farm their own food should be replicated and expanded. Ensuring that soldiers are regularly paid living wages and tying those salary payments to respect for human rights would also help considerably toward the goal of security sector reform.

The rape crisis in the DRC is complex and there are no easy solutions. By focusing on rebuilding the rule of law as well as community-based efforts to change perceptions of women and their place in society, progress is possible.


[1] Amber Peterman, Tia Palermo, and Caryn Bredenkamp, “Estimates and Determinates of Sexual Violence Against Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” American Journal of Public Health Vol. 101 (6), 2011.

[2] Susan Bartels et al, “’Now, the World is Without Me:’ An Investigation of Sexual Violence in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo,” Oxfam/Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, 2010, http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/DRC-sexual-violence-2010-04.pdf, Accessed April 11, 2012.

[3] Francoise Duroch, Melissa McRae, and Rebecca Grais, “Description and consequences of sexual violence in Ituri province, Democratic Republic of Congo,” International Health and Human Rights, Vol. 11 (5), 2011.

[4] Kirsten Johnson et al, “Association of Sexual Violence and Human Rights Violations with Physical and Mental Health in Territories of the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 307 (14), 2010.

[5] Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern, “The Complexity of Violence: A critical analysis of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC),” SIDA Working Paper on Gender-based Violence, 2010, http://nai.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?page=statistics&pid=diva2:319527, Accessed April 11, 2012.

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