by Patricia Kisare
“In the years of war, life was very difficult. Many women were raped.. . . Before the war, girls were starting to be sent to school, but now they are a target of rape.” —Joel Mudogo of Rutshuru, in eastern Congo
In the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, rape has become a strategy of war. The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 women and girls have been raped in eastern Congo in the last 15 years.
The epidemic of rape in Congo can be traced back to the mid-1990s, a period that coincides with the Rwandan genocide. Around this time, Hutu militiamen who had committed genocide and crimes against humanity in Rwanda escaped into eastern Congo.
The militants were hidden among millions of predominantly Hutu civilian refugees trying to escape violence in their country. When the new Tutsi government took hold in Rwanda, these armed groups remained in eastern Congo and formed several factions. Today, the primary remnant of these armed groups is the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.
These militia groups started to use rape as a weapon of war in order to control the local population. Rape is used to intimidate civilians into compliance, punish them for cooperating with rival groups and create fear, which enables armed groups to control some aspects of the mineral trade.
Another rebel group, called the Lord’s Resistance Army, has also been using the deplorable tactic of rape. Even the Congolese army has been implicated. Lack of discipline and the fact that most soldiers do not get paid regularly have led them to resort to similar tactics as a way of earning income. By using intimidation, these soldiers are able to exploit the mineral trade for their own financial gains.
Mass rape of women in the Congo has lasting effects on the entire population, especially on the physical and psychological wellness of survivors and their families. Survivors sometimes have to undergo arduous surgical procedures to correct serious internal injuries. In addition, broken marriages are rampant in these communities be-cause survivors’ spouses find it difficult to deal with the shame attached to rape. Furthermore, many survivors contract HIV/AIDS as a result.
Both the government of Congo and the international community have failed to put an end to rape attacks on Congolese women and girls. Years of greed, chaos and a culture of impunity continue to enable those who perpetrate this heinous crime.
Key highlights of the proposed International Violence Against Women Act
- Seeks to make ending violence against women a diplomatic priority for the U.S. government
- Requires the U.S. government to respond to critical outbreaks of gender-based violence in armed conflict in a timely manner
- Urges investment in local women’s organizations working to reduce violence in their communities
- Endorses the U.S. government’s support for multilateral efforts to end violence against women and girls