Feature Story

26 November 2008

Legacy of War: An Epidemic of Sexual Violence in DRC

As warfare rages on in DRC, the violence is escalating and women’s bodies have become a battleground.
Photo: Lyndsey Addario

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo—Forty year-old Angelique reveals a gunshot wound in her back to women in the Keyshero Medical centre, while her six-year-old daughter reaches up to touch it.

Angelique (her name has been changed) and her family were attacked in their village in November 2007 when men dressed in police uniforms broke into their house at night, looted it, and forced her family into the forest. With brute force they held down Angelique and her 12-year-old daughter as they raped them and then shot each in the back. “They chased us … I don't know where my husband is now. I haven't seen him since that day,” said Angelique.

Anguish, fear, and torment weigh on the hearts of many women and girls in a country infamous for widespread sexual brutality. With a recent flare-up of fighting in the eastern and northern provinces, which has affected the lives of over 1 million civilians since August, women and girls have even more reason to live in fear.

Rape as a weapon of war

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—sometimes referred to as the ‘African World War’—has devastated the country since its onset in 1998. The world’s deadliest conflict since World War II, it has killed 5.4 million people and displaced a million more. Despite the signing of peace accords in 2003 and again in 2008, fighting has been ongoing throughout the east, and the prevalence of rape in this region has been described as the worst in the world.

Much of the violence is unspeakably brutal. Many sexual violence survivors have received debilitating damage to their reproductive organs, resulting in multiple fistulas and incontinence.Women and girls have been left with

"Initially, rape was used as a tool of war. But now sexual violence is also perpetuated by ordinary people occupying positions of authority."
--Dr. Margaret Agama

broken bones, missing limbs and burned flesh. Some have been shot and stabbed in the vagina with rifles, shards of glass and other objects. Family men have been forced at gun point to sexually violate their own daughters, sisters and mothers.

“Sexual violence constitutes a plague in the DRC,” said Dr. Margaret Agama, the country’s UNFPA representative. “Initially, rape was used as a tool of war by all the belligerent forces involved in the country’s recent conflicts, but now sexual violence is unfortunately not only perpetrated by armed factions but also by ordinary people occupying positions of authority, neighbours, friends and family members.”

As warfare rages on between rebel and government groups, the violence is escalating and women’s bodies have literally become a battleground. Systematic gang rapes, kidnappings, mutilation, and sexual slavery are experienced at the hands of both foreign militias and the Congolese army—which is supposed to provide protection. Survivors are left wounded, alone and with few options.

Mental anguish

Instead of empathy and compassion, survivors of sexual violence in DRC are often stigmatized, leaving many feeling ashamed and embarrassed. The physical consequences of rape may include injuries, unwanted pregnancies and HIV. But the damage to mental health can be just as harmful and may lead to anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and even suicide.

Survivors who fail to receive appropriate treatment and counselling can suffer these effects for years. Yet, asking for help from authorities or even friends is not easy since the judicial system is riddled with corruption. Violence against women has become so engrained into Congolese culture that it is considered a norm.

In 2006, a new constitution clarified definitions of rape and sexual attacks, and introduced a 20-year minimum sentence for those found guilty. However, the weak application of the law allows perpetrators to act with impunity, and few women have the money to prosecute. These factors have left many survivors unwilling to come forward and report the crimes that have been committed.

Life-altering consequences

Besides physical and mental anguish, pregnancy as a result of rape is another consequence Congolese women and girls face. Photo: Lyndsey Addario

Unless survivors are lucky enough to get prompt medical care, sexual violence often results in HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, as well as unwanted pregnancies. Following the recent escalation of violence in the eastern and northern provinces, some 15,000 pregnant women were displaced, and 5,000 will deliver in the next three months.

In any population, even in the best of times, about one in seven women will have complications that require emergency obstetric care or surgical delivery. Instability and displacement can put stresses on women that may force them into premature labour or lead to other complications. Without access to basic antenatal care and support for complications, the lives of these women and their babies are at risk.

Many Congolese are out of reach of humanitarian aid. But in camps near Goma, where an estimated 50,000 internally displaced persons are dwelling, UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, in collaboration with the DRC’s Ministry of Health, is distributing medical supplies for obstetric care for pregnant women in these camps. Medicines and medical supplies to accommodate 150,000 displaced persons and host families were also distributed by UNFPA to the General Referral Hospital of Goma, including equipment for emergency obstetric care.

UNFPA is supporting hospitals and clinics in Goma to provide medical treatment and counselling for survivors of sexual violence, including medicines to protect them from unwanted pregnancies and contracting sexually transmitted illnesses, including the life-threatening HIV. UNFPA will provide hygiene essentials (such as to sanitary napkins to enable women to move freely and attend to their families during the crisis) to those internally displaced and also seeking refuge in the Nakivale camp in neighbouring Uganda. In collaboration with UNICEF and MSF, UNFPA will also conduct an assessment in the coming week to evaluate the reproductive health needs of the crisis-affected population.

—reported by Lyndsey Addario in DRC and Shannon Egan in New York

Aiding survivors of sexual violence

In March, UNFPA, along with the DRC’s national Ministry of Women, Family and Children, organized a campaign to raise the level of awareness on sexual violence throughout the national and international communities and to unite authorities, neighbours, survivors, friends and family members in its elimination. The intensive, multi-faceted campaign took place in 11 provinces over a period of one month to marshall recognized moral community leaders to influence public opinion. Yet, the challenge of providing assistance to the Congolese survivors of sexual violence has been compounded by budget limitations and the high cost of transportation in a country with a fragmentary and poorly maintained road system. Furthermore, the lack of adequate jails or prisons has led to the quick release of perpetrators. These factors, combined with cultural barriers and taboos, have left many victims unwilling to come forward and report the crimes that have been committed.

UNFPA has been aiding survivors of sexual violence throughout the DRC for many years by providing medical care, economic and social rehabilitation, and legal assistance. In 2007, the Fund provided survivors of sexual violence with legal support and trained thousands of armed forces and police on how to protect and care for survivors of sexual violence. In Kasai Oriental, North and South Kivu. police special protection units for women and children have been established, and over 15,000 sexual violence survivors have received medical care as a result. UNFPA also played a key advocacy role in the adoption of the DRC law on sexual violence in July 2006. This law has broadened the definition of sexual violence to include acts such as sexual harassment, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization and other brutal practices.

In March, UNFPA, along with the DRC’s national Ministry of Women, Family and Children, organized a campaign to raise the level of awareness on sexual violence throughout the national and international communities and to unite authorities, neighbours, survivors, friends and family members in its elimination. The intensive, multi-faceted campaign took place in 11 provinces over a period of one month to marshall recognized moral community leaders to influence public opinion. Yet, the challenge of providing assistance to the Congolese survivors of sexual violence has been compounded by budget limitations and the high cost of transportation in a country with a fragmentary and poorly maintained road system. Furthermore, the lack of adequate jails or prisons has led to the quick release of perpetrators. These factors, combined with cultural barriers and taboos, have left many victims unwilling to come forward and report the crimes that have been committed.

UNFPA has been aiding survivors of sexual violence throughout the DRC for many years by providing medical care, economic and social rehabilitation, and legal assistance. In 2007, the Fund provided survivors of sexual violence with legal support and trained thousands of armed forces and police on how to protect and care for survivors of sexual violence. In Kasai Oriental, North and South Kivu. police special protection units for women and children have been established, and over 15,000 sexual violence survivors have received medical care as a result. UNFPA also played a key advocacy role in the adoption of the DRC law on sexual violence in July 2006. This law has broadened the definition of sexual violence to include acts such as sexual harassment, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization and other brutal practices.