Since military conflicts erupted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in the 1990s, rates of sexual violence have increased significantly and become a major issue across the region. Though conflict in the DRC officially ended in 2003, fighting has continued and taken more than 5 million lives since the war began almost 20 years ago.
Sexual violence in the DRC, along with related crimes, have been called the worst in the world, particularly in the eastern region of the country. A study from the American Journal of Public Health states that in the DRC, 1,152 women are raped every day, and an estimated 12 percent of the female population of the DRC has been raped at least once.
Research has shown that many of the sexual attacks are related to armed conflict, and thus, the United Nations Development Program is helping the DRC strengthen its military justice program to make it fair, just and constructive in helping sexual violence victims.
Across the regions, trials are taking place following years of conflict and acts of violence in the DRC. Many soldiers have not been punished for their actions due to their special treatment in the military system, but the civilian courts are working their way through cases with the support of the UNDP. Thirty-one convictions and 9 investigative missions into serious war crimes under the International Criminal Court have resulted from UNDP support.
“It was important that the case be tried here because it is the exact location where the incidents [of rape and murder] occurred,” said Captain Magistrate Bienvenu Muanansele, from the Tribunal Militaire de Garnison de Goma. “These trials held before the people of Bweremana show the people how justice does its job. The law prevails, even for the military.”
The UNDP is also supporting the DRC military in training soldiers to understand the law, the consequences of violent attacks against civilians and human rights. A total of 2,432 soldiers and officials have gone through this training process.
In addition to these steps to reduce violent acts by soldiers, many organizations are working to provide support and community for female sexual violence victims. Masika is a rape victim and founder of a rescue center for sexual violence survivors. After being exiled by her parents in-law, she decided to offer community and support to other women who had experienced sexual assault. Following an army attack in the nearby marketing town of Minova, 130 rape victims came to Masika’s camp.
The stigma against rape victims in the DRC is so severe that in many cases, women are exiled from their families and ostracized. However, women support groups are beginning to provide community as rapists are being brought to justice.
An organization called SAMWAKI, or A Voice to Rural Women in Swahili, works to provide information and training for rural women through community radio. The group aims to increase women’s knowledge on topics from health to farming, and provides listening groups for victims to share their experiences.
Similarly, AFEM (L’Association des Femmes des Médias du Sud Kivu) offers journalism training and a space for women to be a voice for sexual violence survivors. Founded by young journalist Chouchou Namegabe, the organization aims to increase women’s representation in the media.
While sexual violence in the DRC continues to be one of the worst cases in the world, both international and domestic groups are working to end the normalization and prevalence of rape. Gradually, soldiers and sexual assailants are being brought to justice, and women are coming together, speaking out and finding community.
— Julia Thomas