Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Rape a 'Weapon of War' in Eastern Congo

Epidemic of brutal sexual violence plagues the region where women are being raped with impunity.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, where thousands of rapes are committed each year and sexual violence is the norm, Marie Jeanne’s story is all too familiar.

She was raped three weeks ago in the Rutshuru district of the eastern North Kivu province by four soldiers from the Congolese army. “I lost my virginity. I don’t know whether I have AIDS. And who’s going to marry me?” said the 19-year-old from a hospital in the provincial capital Goma.

Marie Jeanne still has the support of her family, unlike Jeanette, 20, who was raped one evening by a member of the local militia in her village. Jeanette’s family have rejected her, saying she offered herself to her attacker.

An epidemic of brutal sexual violence is plaguing the eastern Congo where women like Marie Jeanne and Jeanette are being raped with impunity by all sides in the conflict between a renegade general, rival militias and the Congolese army.

“Sexual violence is being perpetrated by all armed groups,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It is clear that women are completely unprotected at the moment. No one can claim they are unaware that rape is being used as a weapon of war in eastern Congo.”

Justine Masika works for a Goma-based NGO that helps victims of sexual violence in North Kivu. She joined the group, Synergie des femmes pour les victimes des violences sexuelles, SFVS, after being asked to help an 80-year-old woman who had been raped. The woman later died of her injuries.

Masika estimates there have been 14,000 rapes in North Kivu since 2004, around 1,400 in the past six months alone. SFVS – which arranges counseling, morning after pills and operations on injuries like fistulas, rips in the vaginal wall caused by rape – has helped thousands of rape victims including a ten-month old baby.

Most are rural dwellers, attacked while they are working in the fields or fetching water but young boys have also fallen victim to the violence, with Masika’s group documenting nearly 40 boys raped this year in North Kivu.

The rapists are attempting to weaken or destroy communities, she says, using sexual violence to terrorise or implement their own agendas. “It’s a strategy of war,” said Masika.

Though rape has long been a tactic of Congo’s warring parties, Masika says the problem is worse now than in the past. Though the vast majority of rapes are committed by members of armed grounds, Masika says civilians are increasingly responsible for sexual violence, some of whom are demobilised militia members.

“During the wars of the Nineties there was rape but the perpetrators were severely punished, expelled from their communities,” she said. “But in areas where there has been so much conflict impunity has set in. Civilians now see it as behaviour they can get away with.”

NGO workers say that rather than being driven from communities as they would have been in the past, it is now common for the families of victims and perpetrators to instead work out compensation deals. “Rapists give the family of their victims two goats in compensation,” said Masika.

Chantal, a 28-year-old mother of six, was raped by nine soldiers in a field in the Masisi district. She says the men were soldiers loyal to the Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda, who controls the area and is fighting the Congolese army in the province.

She was taken to a hospital in Goma where she remains, in terrible pain, abandoned by her family. Chantal says her tormentors are still walking free - she fears raping other women. “What have I done to deserve this pain?” she asks.

Chantal, like most Congolese rape victims, sees no point in turning to the country’s courts for redress. Masika says Chantal’s lack of faith in a system where justice is available to the highest bidder is typical. Only 200 of the thousands of women she has helped have dared to legally pursue their attackers.

Another major problem is lack of access to the legal system. There are courts in the North Kivu towns of Goma, Butembo and Beni, but most women are attacked in rural areas, miles from the nearest police station, court house or lawyer.

Rejusco, a European-funded organisation to help resurrect the ailing justice system in Congo’s east, estimates only two per cent of sexual violence victims have access to legal assistance. Dirk Deprez, coordinator at Rejusco in Goma, says a new law on sexual violence passed by parliament in 2006 and designed to speed up the prosecution of rape cases and impose stiffer penalties has had little effect.

“It was an ambitious law in an understaffed and underequipped system,” said Deprez. “It was a symbolic victory for those working on sexual violence, but we don’t see a lot happening in the field since the law came out.”

Van Woudenberg agrees the deck is stacked against women who want to bring charges of rape. “The investigation is never properly conducted,” she said. “There are hardly any women magistrates or investigators. Women are treated so badly when they raise these issues and when they go through court proceedings.”

In a recent report, the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women said the scale and brutality of the sexual violence in the Congo amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Individual acts of rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilisation and any other form of sexual violence constituting a grave breach or serious violation of the Geneva Conventions can be prosecuted as war crimes, if they occur during either international or internal armed conflict.

That could be where the ICC comes in. With the Congolese legal system in chaos, it will likely be the Hague-based court that will hold to account some of those accused of sexual violence in North Kivu and elsewhere in the country.

Masika sends her evidence on sexual crimes committed in North Kivu to the court, which is in the process of selecting its third investigation in Congo. If that will be in North Kivu is not yet known. However, the ICC said recently that it is gathering information on crimes committed by all sides there including rape, forced displacement, killings and enlisting child soldiers.

Beatrice Le Frapper Du Hellen, the head of the ICC division working with governments to secure cooperation, told IWPR that the court is aware of the culture of sexual violence in the eastern Congo, which she described as “massive, massive shocking brutality”.

“It is being used absolutely routinely with such brutality, even against very young children, that there has to be an objective in such brutality,” she said.

The ICC has one Congolese militia leader in custody – Germain Katanga – accused of sexual slavery, among other things

In Uganda, Joseph Kony and Vincent Otti from the Lord’s Resistance Army are charged with rape and sexual enslavement while two Sudanese indictees – Ahmed Harun and Ali Kosheyb – are accused of 51 crimes against humanity and war crimes including rape. In the ICC’s ongoing investigation in the Central African Republic, allegations of sexual crimes far outnumber alleged killings.

“With our case against Katanga we have said very clearly that sexual violence is prosecuted by the ICC,” said Le Frapper. “If anybody though that sexual violence is a crime that isn’t going to be prosecuted, look at Katanga, look at the Central African Republic, look at Joseph Kony, look at Harun.”

Lisa Clifford is an IWPR reporter in The Hague. Charles Ntiricya is an IWPR contributor in Goma.