Shifting the Burden of Shame: Justice for Survivors of Sexual Violence in the DRC

“If they hadn’t arrested me I wouldn’t have known it was a crime”

~Chance, a soldier in the DRC currently serving a 25 year sentence for rape

I was hospitalized at the health centre. I was receiving an IV infusion one night when the soldiers came to pillage. They pulled out the IV catheters and then they started to rape the patients, including myself. By July, I had not had my period for seven months. I gave birth to twins. As a result of this incident, my husband has abandoned me.”

In our village, there was a lot of suffering because of the soldiers. For this reason, we were no longer sleeping in our houses; instead we were hiding in the bush. We were in our hiding place and I was sleeping. I saw five assailants coming. They were shameful enough to rape me. I am old – around 70 years of age.”

Because our village was at risk of being attacked, my husband and I were sleeping in our hiding place. During the night in question, 30 well-armed assailants dressed in military uniform attacked us. They killed my husband. They tied me up and the child I was carrying on my back fell to the ground. A total of nineteen assailants took turns raping me.”

My husband and I were sleeping in our house. The children were sleeping in the house next door. The soldiers arrived and brought my daughter to our house where they raped her in the presence of my husband and me. Afterwards they demanded that my husband rape my daughter but he refused so they shot him. Then they went into the other house where they found my three sons. They killed all three of my boys. After killing them, two soldiers raped me one after the other.

I was walking along the road near the Kamaguana market when a boy from my neighborhood called out to me. I thought he wanted to tell me something since he was a brother of my community. I approached him and he immediately pushed me into the yard and closed the door behind me. There was a man behind the door and he beat me very badly. Then he raped me and since it was my first sexual encounter, he took my virginity.”

~Quotes from “Now the World is Without Me”, a report by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, April 2010

A Congolese woman recovers at a hospital in Goma, DRC. Photo: Endre Vestvik (flickr)

While Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV) has been experienced by women and men during conflicts throughout history, it is only in the past 10 years that SGBV has been defined as, and declared, an international human rights issue. Previously, rape was considered an incidental spoil of war, or was used as a tool to boost morale, but people are now being targeted purely for political and strategic reasons.

The accounts and estimated numbers of victims of sexual violence since the beginning of the conflict in the DRC in 1996, have been widely publicized, though the estimates do not even scratch the surface of the real situation due to overwhelming underreporting of the offenses.  Widespread human rights violations in the form of sexual violence have been reportedly perpetrated by members of all military and militia groups involved in the conflict. From the beginning of the war until 2005, over 20,000 incidents of sexual violence requiring medical attention were reported. It is important to note that these reports were of emergency cases of traumatic fistula and other extreme injuries that required immediate medical attention only, and therefore the actual numbers are presumably much higher. During 2003, South Kivu health centers reported an average of 40 rapes per day, and 13% of those occurred in girls under 14 years of age.  In 2007, the UN reported an average of 350 cases per month in North Kivu province, and 2,773 rapes were reported in one region of South Kivu. The ages of the women and girls assaulted range from 10 months to 80 years old.  In several cases, local medical centers have been raided by the military and Viagra is distributed amongst the combatants to aid in these assaults.  The rapes are frequently disgustingly brutal with most rapes perpetrated by gangs.  Families are often forced to watch or participate in the rapes, and many women are raped with pieces of wood, cassava stalks or gun barrels, among other implements. There are also many reports of women being shot in the vagina.  As a result of such brutal violence, approximately 10-12% of the survivors reporting rapes have contracted HIV as a direct result of the assault.  In addition to physical consequences, those who survive sexual violence in the context of war, are also subject to intense stigma, blame, rejection by their community and loved ones and loss of possessions, livelihoods and traditions. The fear, shame and demoralization resulting from this violence not only affects the survivor, but the entire community.

© Unjin Lee / afrol News- Two Congolese rape survivors, both HIV positive, in a small clinic in Luvungi

One of the most immediate barriers keeping sexual violence survivors from healing in these combat situations is the lack of prosecution for offenders. This impunity is often the result of a failed judicial system and state, as well as the cultural bias and stigma associated with rape within the society, especially in the case of the rape of men and boys.  This stigma, as well as the fear of further violence if the survivor seeks medical care or reports the incident, leads to a dangerous silence that serves to perpetuate impunity. Furthermore, sexual violence is often not reported, especially in the eastern regions of the country, because most rural areas have little to no police presence, and many of the existing police forces are not properly trained to accept reports of sexual violence.  Additionally, many of these crimes are perpetrated by men and women in uniform. Further barriers to accountability include the failure to prevent attacks, inadequate support of effective prosecution efforts, and difficulty in documentation procedures due to an inability to collect timely evidence in conflict situations.

Since the beginning of these atrocities, and amidst all reporting that did take place, 2009 saw the first 5 men to ever be convicted and sentenced for the crime of mass rape. Currently, there are only about 300 inmates incarcerated in the North Kivu capital of Goma that have been accused or convicted of rape.  The lack of accountability and culture of impunity, and the publicity surrounding the impunity, only serves to propagate these brutal crimes and to further the psychological impact on survivors and their communities.  Additionally, this same culture of impunity has been cited as one of the main reasons behind a recent increase in rapes perpetrated by civilians. While sexual violence in the East is still largely militarized, a recent study by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative has shown a marked increase in civilian sexual predators. In 2004, for example, less than 1% of rapes were perpetrated by civilians, compared to 38% in 2008.

In an effort to aid in the provision of justice for survivors of sexual violence, ICMHD is currently involved in a security sector reform project to train members of the national police force to work with the reporting and prosecution of sexual violence. This training program not only addresses practical skills such as investigatory and interview techniques, but also addresses the culturally-related thoughts and actions concerning sexual violence against both women and men. Protection of those who report and testify is a main focus of these training modules, as well as the need to treat all perpetrators as equals regardless of social or military status. The education of those mandated to protect civilians is merely one step in the fight against sexual violence and impunity. The civilian population must be educated in the same manner. To be able to create behavioural change, it is absolutely necessary that the burden of shame be placed on the perpetrator and not on the survivor. Only with justice that can be ‘seen’ will healing for survivors begin. Without justice that can be seen, the rampant sexual violence currently being endured will continue.

References and Links

Harvard Humanitarian Initiative Report   Now, The World Is Without Me: An Investigation of Sexual Violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

“Our Bodies- Their Battle Ground: Gender-based Violence in Conflict Zones.” IRIN. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. September 2004. Retrieved from

Couldrey, Marion and Tim Morris, Eds. “Sexual Violence: Weapon of War, Impediment to Peace.” Forced Migration Review. Refugee Studies Center. January 2007     Retrieved from

“DRC: Special Report on War and Peace in the Kivus.” IRIN. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. August 6, 2004. Retrieved from

“No End to War on Women and Children. North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo.” Amnesty International. Amnesty International Publications. September 29, 2008. Retrieved from

“DRC: Rape cases soar in South Kivu.” IRIN. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. June 3, 2009. Retrieved from

DRC: Behind Bars for Rape. Retrieved from

DRC:Getting Away With Rape. Retrieved from

Analysis: Rethinking Sexual Violence in DRC. Retrieved from

One response to “Shifting the Burden of Shame: Justice for Survivors of Sexual Violence in the DRC

  1. Pingback: Shifting the Burden of Shame: Justice for Survivors of Sexual Violence in the DRC (via ICMHD) « Blog Ethiopia·

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