It is no secret that sexual violence is widely used as a weapon of war. Rape has been deployed in conflicts throughout history as a form of psychological warfare intended to punish, intimidate, and destroy whole communities. Inge Skjelsbæk, professor at PRIO has said that over time, discourse has shifted from the idea that rape is something that just “inevitably happens in war because men are men,” to acknowledging that “rape is a clear war strategy and a war crime that threatens international peace and security.”
In March 2019, a U.N. report on sexual violence in conflict found that rape is used as a strategy of war in 15 countries around the world, mostly in Africa and the Middle East. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) has identified that the main perpetrators of these sexual attacks tend to be regional political militias and state forces. The 2019 report found that the Democratic Republic of the Congo topped the list of countries prone to sexual violence in conflict. While the country has been in crisis, it has been described as “the rape capital of the world.”
Much of the conflict in the D.R.C. originated in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Hutu génocidaires escaped to D.R.C. following the genocide and used Hutu refugee camps in eastern Congo as bases in which to continue their attacks against Rwanda. Opposing Tutsi groups were formed and war eventually broke out when the Congolese government was unable to control the chaos. It is estimated that over five million people were killed. Since then, armed groups have continued to target innocent people.
The prevalence of armed groups combined with poor governance has left countless Congolese men, women and children vulnerable to rape and sexual violence as well as other horrific human rights violations. The African Union, United Nations, and neighbouring countries have all been unable to deal with the threat posed by rebel groups.
The U.N.’s Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has also felt the pressure of the conflict. On November 25th, 2019, offices at the MONUSCO headquarters were set ablaze by angry protestors who expressed frustration at the fact that action was not being taken to protect them from militia attacks. Amnesty International released a public statement the same day expressing that “It is scandalous that civilians are dying day in, day out while the local police and nearby UN peacekeepers stay put in their camps.” It is also interesting to note that research by ACLED found that a large proportion of sexual violence cases are perpetrated by those who are there to protect.
In April 2019, Germany held negotiations with the United States and other member states of the Security Council in order to adopt a resolution that would allow states to sanction those who commit or order sexual violence in conflict. According to Al Jazeera, by April 2020 the estimated numbers were that nearly one in four men in eastern D.R.C. has been raped, and one in three women has suffered from sexual violence.
With sensitive matters such as this, it is important not to get lost in facts and figures. It is equally important not to distance ourselves from the reality faced by so many victims. Putting a name to factual information can often help us connect further to those suffering.
In an Al Jazeera report published on April 14th, 2020, Lucia (whose name was changed to protect her identity) was one of several survivors who shared her story:
“My life had been a nightmare since my first rape at the age of 13. I went to a wedding with my family in Bunyakiri, and while fetching water from the river, my friends and I were raped. I was raped by a number of men – I have never been able to count – and since then, I have been physically paralysed and am disabled.”
Unfortunately, Lucia’s ordeal did not end there.
“One month afterwards, I realised I was pregnant. A baby boy was born of this rape, but this child will never know who his father is because they were too many that day to know for sure. These men destroyed my life.”
Lucia was attacked again just three years later, approximately 45km from where she was first raped. Rebels descended on the village and this time, due to her paralysis Lucia was unable to run. She was attacked by several men and subsequently became pregnant with her second child.
In the report, Lucia asked: “Who should I fight? My fear, my pain, my despair or the unknown that are the basis of my misfortune?”
When Congolese gynaecologist Dr. Denis Mukwege recounted the reaction to his address when he won the Nobel prize for his work to end the use of sexual violence in war, he stated that “everyone applauded, but nothing happened.” This echoes the fact that despite the outrage, there is not enough being done to protect civilians.
Countless victims like Lucia are dealing with the permanent physical and mental scars left behind by the brutal trauma they were subjected to. In order for things to change, rape must no longer be tolerated as a war tactic. Rape when used a weapon of war, breaks up families and communities. Aid agencies and governments must acknowledge that the effects of wartime rape are twofold. It is not just an attack on individual victims but also an attack on the communities in which they live.
The trauma faced by survivors is something that many of us will luckily never have to endure. However, we should all still strive to listen to victims and support them in their struggle for justice. Awareness of the situation is the first step towards a better future. Educating ourselves on the conflict and listening to the stories of survivors are some of the ways in which we can be equipped with the tools necessary to stand up for prevention against wartime sexual violence.
Since sexual violence is used as a weapon of war, it makes sense that the war itself must come to a end. This would alleviate some of the suffering endured by victims of rape, particularly women and girls. Ending the conflict would offer victims a chance to heal and work towards rebuilding their communities.
Full of natural wealth, the D.R.C. is potentially one of the richest countries on Earth, but it has been turned into one of the poorest as a result of years of colonial rule, slavery, greed and corruption. Political instability and poor infrastructure are some of the ways in which rebel groups are able to get away with perpetrating violence against innocent civilians.
Regardless of its consistent use throughout history, sexual violence is not an inevitability of war. Rape does not just happen by chance. It is a choice to perpetrate it, and it is a choice for governments to tolerate it – this means that it can be stopped.
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