Rape: a Weapon in the DRC
In the past five minutes, four women have been raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As a result, it isn’t surprising that the DRC has become known as the rape capital of the world. These rapes are not just propagations of rape culture, the type we have even in the United States, but are methods of destroying communities in the DRC’s ongoing conflicts.
If you’re unfamiliar with the region, the DRC has been in a violent state ever since it became independent from Belgium. In 1961, a year after its independence, the Prime Minister was assassinated and an army chief, Joseph Mobutu, came into power.
During the Cold War, Mobutu was supported by the U.S. for speaking out against the Soviet Union and assisting in regional conflicts with Soviet allies. Mobutu was known in the region to be a corrupt leader, but was supported by the U.S. until the end of the Cold War. After the Cold War, the DRC lost support from the U.S. and the conflict between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda began to spill over the Rwanda-DRC border.
The DRC became a conflict zone for Rwanda and Uganda, who were attempting to exterminate remaining extremist Hutu militia, and remained a conflict zone for militias and corporations hoping to seize its mineral-rich land.
The main use of rape as a weapon of war in the conflicts of the region is for destroying communities. By raping and mutilating women, especially in front of their families, militias have a means to humiliate, emasculate, and ultimately shatter communities.
The ease at which such destruction can be accomplished is dependent, of course, on the value placed upon the virginity of the women in the community. In a heavily patriarchal culture, a woman’s virginity is something that should be protected by both the woman and her community, as she is a symbol of the purity and safety of her community.
When the woman’s virginity is stolen or destroyed through an act of rape, her community appears unable to protect her. As a result, the rape survivor may be shunned by her community (they would rather have her disappear than recognize their own faults) or otherwise prevented from having a normal life.
In the DRC, specifically, rape may also be used to increase food insecurity. In the country, especially in camps for internally displaced persons, women are responsible for collecting firewood and crops. When systematic rape begins to occur near such areas, communities lose their means of collecting food, and therefore become weaker and less self-sustainable. Similarly, women who live near valuable natural resources may be targeted to ensure that a culture of fear and acquiescence develops near the valuable resources.
Ironically, all of this sexual violence occurs in the country with the greatest number of UN peacekeepers in the world. Not surprisingly, the 2004 Secretary General of the UN publicly acknowledged that the peacekeepers were probably involved in perpetrating the sexual abuse. Therefore, rape survivors end up having nowhere to turn, and no path by which to seek justice.
The DRC lacks a witness protection program, so survivors are often re-raped as punishment if they come forward about their experiences. The armies and militias themselves are of no protection, as some believe rape is necessary for sexual fulfillment when separated from their wives, while others are forced by their superiors to rape as proof of their manhood.
As a result of rape used by all sides of the conflict, the DRC will be suffering from the consequences of the conflict long after the peace accords have been signed and the troops have been dismantled.
Years of nonstop abuse against women has led to a perception of such relations as normal, yet rape survivors still lack ways to treat injuries sustained in incidents of violence. Many women die of internal poisoning from rape-created fistulas (tears in the vaginal wall between the bladder or rectum), or are left with the legacy of their rapist in the form of HIV or an unwanted child.
We can see an illustration of the aftereffects of war rape in present-day Rwanda, where many women are still dying of HIV contracted during the genocide of the 1990s.
For a country like Rwanda, where about 70 percent of the population after the genocide was female, such ongoing effects of rape are potentially devastating for years to come. In the DRC, without stricter prosecution and punishment of war rape, we can only expect to see more of the same.
Emilia Truluck is a College freshman from Savannah, Ga.