Thursday, March 08, 2012

D.R. Congo: The Forgotten Rape Capital of the World

Source: ISS

DRC: The Forgotten Rape Capital of the World

The effects of civil strife on the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the attendant sexual violations cannot be gainsaid. The situation is so dire that the Special Representative of the United Nations (UN) Security General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms Margot Wallstrom, has called the DRC “The rape capital of the world”. Indeed mass rape - a weapon of war practiced by both militias and government forces - has been so endemic that about 40 women are raped every day, some as old as 80 years of age and others as young as ten years. The UN High Commission for Refugees spokesperson Melissa Fleming, reported in 2010 that about 1 244 women were sexually assaulted throughout the country during the first three months of the year alone, more than a third of the cases taking place in North and South Kivu provinces of eastern DRC. Overall, at least 200 000 cases of sexual violence have been reported in the country since 1996.

The negative forces in the DRC are infamous for committing such diabolical acts as abducting women and young girls and raping them for days on end. These acts of sexual violence have had severe physical and mental repercussions. Some of the women have been raped in front of their children and husbands leading to psychological shock and trauma in both the children and the husbands. Intriguingly, abortion is illegal in the DRC, and so the women who become pregnant through rape have little choice but to carry their pregnancy to full term. Some, however, reject their babies after they are born claiming they remind them of the assault. The physical effects of rape on victims have included tears in the vagina and anus, scars on the body, rectal and vaginal fistulas leading to chronic incontinence (unable to control bladder thereby liable to urinate or defecate involuntarily) and furthermore, contraction of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS. Some communities are too harsh and therefore ostracize those women who have been raped, claiming they are unclean and evil, an unfortunate scenario since they did not choose to be raped.

When asked why they rape women and young girls, militias explain that they have been neglected by the authorities, at times they lack pay, and therefore they rape to show their anger with the authorities. Some say they see civilians as a source of income and an exploitable resource. They protect people but have to steal from them to survive and in the process gang rape the women they steal from. The rebels explain that they use rape as a weapon of humiliation to their community for not accepting them back when they had quit the group. The rebels also fight through attacks on women to show the incapability of their men/ husbands to protect them; hence it is used as a weapon of war rather than engage the men in open conflict. Unfortunately, there are insufficient funds to support women abandoned by their spouses due to rape, thus increasing vulnerability and poverty among the communities. The single mother’s main preoccupation becomes meeting the basic survival needs of their children and thus girls are denied the opportunity to pursue education.

It is worth noting that sexual violence is also committed against men. However, the social structure of masculinity has created a culturally tolerant attitude towards violence against them, making it difficult to report attacks. Men fear that their rape will be viewed as a likelihood of homosexuality for it is incompatible with their masculinity. It is noted by various gynaecologists that men may experience physical sequel of genital pain; pain during urination, anal pain and testicular pain; and sexual dysfunction including erection problems and impotence. Some of the psychological effects include feelings of loss of control over the body, devastating humiliation and destruction of gender identity. Some women divorce their husbands who have become impotent as a result of sexual violence. The shame associated with rape denies many women and men an opportunity to seek treatment after rape to protect their families from the stigma that goes with having a wife/husband raped. This exposes the same husbands and wives to contagious infections that could be related to the rape. Some of the victims of rape may contemplate suicide, or have feelings of unworthiness and shame, and as such, free medical and psychological care such as trauma healing and counselling should be provided to them. This should also be done in private to prevent stigmatization from the community and its consequences..

In the declaration of the Heads of State and Government of the Member States of the International Conference on Sexual Violence, which was held on 15th Dec 2011, a number of recommendations were considered including the need to increase financial and technical support for judicial and security sector reform on human and women’s rights and sexual violence eradication; the launch of campaigns for zero tolerance on sexual violence simultaneously including men in all member states and the establishing of appropriate mechanisms to investigate and prosecute sexual violence crimes. The recommendations also include efforts to direct the relevant ministries and public agencies to establish and strengthen income generating programs and initiatives to support women especially in cross-border trade areas, targeting survivors of sexual violence. Unfortunately, these pronouncements have remained on paper and there have been little coordinated responses to the rape menace in the DRC. The international community has for long been accused of neglecting the plight of the people of DRC and one needs to remember that while many countries have signed various declarations on the DRC, what matters is not the signing alone but much more importantly, to fulfil the goals stipulated. Without this, the DRC will remain a forgotten ‘rape capital’. While the government of DRC has been able to prosecute some of the perpetrators, it faces serious institutional weaknesses and this calls for more technical support to its judiciary and other branches of government so that it deals adequately with these injustices and particularly their root causes.

Efforts to address the problem should not focus on women only. The international community and government of the DRC should include men’s experiences and priorities and take it into account in planning and monitoring protection measures. This includes complaint mechanisms and adequate representation on security committees and other security bodies, as stipulated in the petition to stop rape against women in the DRC.