Rape in the DRC is not a new problem but it is a serious one


Manuel Carballo, Jennifer Drummond and Daniel Williams

Global attention has suddenly been focused on the gang-rape of 200 women, girls, and possibly boys in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  What action will come of these reports and the subsequent outrage remains to be seen.  Rape is not new to the DRC, nor, indeed, to any conflict situation.  In many cases mass rape in conflict is planned and organized in an attempt to undermine civil society and social cohesion, and this seems to have certainly been the case in recent wars.  The attention of the international community was especially drawn by the media to the use of rape as a tool of war during the conflict in Bosnia.  Some 40,000 women and girls (and men and boys) were kept in prison camps and other locations, repeatedly violated and often impregnated.  But Bosnia was by no means unique, and as more attention was focused on the problem it became clear that few wars have been free of mass rape.


The situation in the DRC, however, remains somewhat distinctive by virtue of the duration of the conflict and the large number of women who continue to be raped on a daily basis by forces from inside and outside the country, including militias, rebels, and other armed groups.  A recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that almost 40% of women and more than 23% of men reached in a survey in the eastern provinces of the DRC had been sexually assaulted since the start of the war.  And according to the UNFPA, there were 17,500 reported incidences of sexual violence in 2009.  Many of these rapes in the DRC have been followed by highly damaging mutilations that have left victims with massive and very difficult-to-treat physical injuries in addition to profound social and psychological scarring.

Over the coming weeks, there will no doubt be a surge of investigations into recent events and fingers will be pointed.  Hopefully there will also be a consolidated and much more rigorous response to what is now a well documented and long-standing problem.  In 2008, the International Centre for Migration, Health, and Development (ICMHD) was asked by MONUC and the UN to assess the situation and propose a course of action.  The resultant Accelerated Plan for Reducing and Mitigating Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in the DRC identified seven priority areas for action that we believe would provide a solid foundation for strengthening the fight against rape and other forms of sexual gender based violence.


The ICMHD Accelerated Plan concluded that one of the problems was the marked lack of coordination among UN agencies receiving funding to work on sexual gender based violence.  Indeed at that time it was virtually impossible to determine what was being done, where, by whom and with what funding.  In addition to calling for this to be addressed within the UN system, we called for a much more visible political commitment by national authorities to the problem and this, we are happy to say, is happening.  The Congolese government, in conjunction with UNFPA, the American Bar Association, UNDP, EUPOL and other important external organizations, has taken several steps to promote the enforcement of the 2006 amendment to the Congolese constitution which makes all forms of sexual violence punishable offenses.  Our Accelerated Plan also called for more intensified action with the uniformed services such as police and military and we, as well as others, now have programs to strengthen the awareness and capacities of national police to prevent and aid in the prosecution of rape.  Another suggestion put forth called for a strengthening of the health care system so it could better respond to the needs of survivors.  Typically, victims of rape have little or no recourse to health care and are forced to deal with their injuries on their own.  In addition, we proposed a major thrust to strengthen the national judiciary system including training and organizational reform and there is good reason to believe that progress is being made on this at different levels. Our assessment of the situation highlighted the fact that a much more robust national surveillance and reporting system was necessary if national authorities and international organizations were to be able to monitor and evaluate the situation.  Finally, because mass rape in the DRC, just as elsewhere, is facilitated by the confusion and chaos that comes with the forced uprooting of people as a result of conflict, we called for more consolidated protection of displaced women.

None of the steps we called for are simple or easy, especially on the scale needed in a country that is larger than Europe and in which police and military personnel are poorly paid and in many cases have not been paid at all in years.  But we believe that if the course of action outlined in the Accelerated Plan that we proposed were to be taken up by all partners it could provide the basis and the momentum required to reduce the number of rapes committed in the DRC and provide women and girls, who are the primary albeit not the only victims, the sense of security they deserve and have not had in over twenty years of violence.


Manuel Carballo is the Executive Director of the International Centre for Migration, Health and Development; Jennifer Drummond and Daniel Williams are researchers at the International Centre for Migration, Health and Development

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