The Worst Place to Be a Woman: Rape in the DRC
In the course of
the conflict in the DRC, the country has become known as “the worst place to be a woman.” Since 1998 when the
Rwandan and Ugandan militaries invaded eastern Congo, reports of sexual
violence have been widespread and even systematic; there are tens of
thousands of known rape cases and it is believed that most actual rapes
are not reported. Human rights groups report that rape has been deliberately
used on all sides “to terrorize citizens, to exert control over
them, or to punish them for perceived collaboration with the enemy,” (Human
Rights Watch, “Soldiers Who Rape, Commanders Who Condone,” July
2009), whoever the “enemy” to one particular militia or
military group may be. Moreover, reports of rape have continued to
rise during the peace process.
Over eighty-percent of reported rapes are attributed to soldiers (men
in uniforms), even though defining who is a soldier amidst the many
militias and national armies operating in the DRC is difficult. Nonetheless,
it is well documented that the Congolese military (FARDC), which is
meant to provide citizen protection and is backed by the United Nations,
is one of the main perpetrators of systemic rape.
The physical, psychological, and emotional trauma of sexual violence
and rape is overwhelming. Women, especially young girls (the UN Population
Fund estimates that 65% of rapes in the DRC are against adolescent
girls), frequently suffer deadly or chronic injuries due to rape. Risk
of HIV and other STI transmission is also significantly greater if
the rape was carried out by a soldier.
However, women and girls are not only traumatized by the act of sexual
violence; they also face the negative attitudes and stigmatization
of their families and communities. Families often kick young girls
out of the house after they have been raped. Husbands will divorce
their wives and engagements will be broken off. Women are then required
to care for themselves and their children alone, which frequently makes
them vulnerable to even further abuse.
In 2009, Rebecca, a former HROC participant, approached Coordinator
Zawadi Nikuze in the Mugunga IDP camp and requested a woman-led HROC
workshop for women who are survivors of sexual violence. Zawadi, while
knowing about the extensive use of sexual violence in the Kivu provinces,
did not know that Rebecca had been raped as it had not come out in
her past participation in the Basic HROC training. She realized that
many women hid their experiences of sexual violence (in general and
within the prior HROC workshops) because of stigma and because of re-traumatization
through contact with men. She therefore developed a program through
which HROC could support women survivors of sexual violence.
Late last year (2009), the Legacy Fund of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
gave HROC-North Kivu a grant to provide a series of HROC workshops
to women who are rape survivors in North Kivu. By the time of the field
work for this report, three workshops had taken place.
As you can see
through Rebecca’s testimony, participating in
a women-led, women-only HROC workshop was the necessary condition to
enable many women to talk about their experiences of sexual violence.
It was also the first time many of these women realized that they were
not alone in their experiences.
Although some medical care is available to women who have experienced
sexual violence, there are few resources available to women to help
them manage the psychological and emotional trauma caused by the experience
of rape and the ensuing social stigmatization. Moreover, after the
IDP camps closed last fall, these women often find it is impossible
to return to their home communities and even harder to access the few
resources made available to them.
The HROC program for rape survivors is new. Initial feedback shows
that the experience-led approach of HROC has a transformative power
in the lives of these women when steps are taken to create a safe-space.
AGLI will conduct a full evaluation of the rape survivors program this
fall when the program is completed, so look forward to further information!