Time to Break the Silence and Stop the Violence: Why Ending War Rape in the DRC Should be a Top Global Priority

Ever since Women for Women International, the organization I work for, started its program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2004, we have heard directly from women we serve about the use of rape and other sexual and gender based violence as weapons of war. Even after 15 years of work around the world helping the most socially excluded women survivors of conflict and war rebuild their lives, the stories of Congo’s rape, torture and sexual violence have disturbed us deeply.

Brutal local, regional, and national conflict has devastated much of eastern Congo for more than a decade.  With 4 million casualties, it is the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II, and some analysts believe that Congo is on the brink of its third major war.  Congo has one of the world’s highest death rates along with one of the world’s highest rates of gross human rights violations.

This continuing conflict brings with it relentless waves of sexual torture, which Dr. Denis Mukwege of Bukavu’s Panzi Hospital calls “sexual terrorism.”  Taken together, the stories of thousands of Congolese women reveal a chilling pattern of sexual and gender-based violence.  Recountings of sexual torture expose similar patterns:  ten to upwards of twenty militia invade a woman’s home and torture and murder her family members – mostly husbands and sons, and often after they are forced to sexually violate their mothers and other female family members.  Mothers are gang raped and family members are forced to watch; women’s and girls’ sexual organs are systematically mutilated; women and girls are abducted and conscripted into months of sexual slavery where they are repeatedly raped and tortured. Many women do not survive these acts of extreme violence, but husbands, family, and the wider community often reject those who do, shunning the children of rape survivors as well and stigmatizing those who contract HIV/AIDS.  Official figures state that some 40,000 Congolese women are survivors of war rape. It is likely that this figure is a gross underestimate. 

Even in the midst of their personal tragedy, Congolese women are incredibly resilient.  They have an unshakable hope, accompanied by the will to do what it takes to rebuild their lives, their families and their country.  Marguerite Budendwa Zifa, a 30-year old mother of 7, said, “After being raped this second time, I’m lost.  I wonder if this war has been a war against me.  I have lost hope in life, but I have to live for my children.” Lucienne M’Maroyi, a 24-year-old mother, has been separated from her husband since she was raped. She has three daughters, the third of whom resulted from the violence she endured as a sex slave.  She named her baby Luck because the people with whom she was taken in the bush were killed, but she was lucky not to have been killed along with them.

These resilient survivors have made it clear that women are not islands; they live within a social context, and it is critical that they build partnerships with men to bring about peace, security, equality, and development.  Building upon a model developed in Nigeria and piloted in Iraq, Women for Women International launched a Men’s Leadership Program (MLP) in January 2005 in the DRC’s South Kivu Province.  The program educates and trains influential male leaders to understand their respective roles in protecting and reintegrating survivors of rape and sexual violence.  The leadership roles these men hold allow them to reach out to other men to raise awareness about the negative impact that sexual and gender-based violence has on the entire community.

One of the most powerful stories to emerge from the MLP was that of Kayembe, a community leader who was so inspired by the training that he and his family began spreading the message to numerous families in his community.  Kayembe says, “Like a true convert, I want my other friends to learn what I learnt.  So I go from house to house, together with my wife and children to dialogue with other households…. So far we have touched the lives of 58 families, but the work goes on and on.”

As the war on women continues unabated, it is critical that the global community acknowledge, understand, and address this hidden side of war.  We must break the silence and tell the stories of sexual and gender based violence against Congolese women. As Honorata Z. Kizende, a 52-year old mother of five says, “It is one thing to have been through what I have been through, but to have no one acknowledge your pain enhances that pain threefold. To suffer in silence is the greatest kind of suffering.”  The global community needs to face its own discomfort and sense of futility that keep policy discussions focused on regional power dynamics rather than on the real details of war’s toll on women, men, and children in the Congo. 

Women’s status in conflict and post conflict countries is a leading indicator of a state’s strength or fragility.  Countries in the world where women are the most marginalized, oppressed, and victimized are the ones that are the most fragile; they are the weakest of states.  The overwhelming majority of the productive, reproductive and community work that builds strong nations is done by women.  When women are destroyed, societies are destroyed and when women are uplifted, societies are uplifted – weak women, weak states, strong women, strong nations.  Women must be brought from the background to the foreground of discussions on peace, security and development. 

Were you to ask women survivors in the DRC what is to be done to build a peaceful and stable Congo, they will tell you what they have told us:

  • That resources must be directed to build capacity and infrastructure for psycho social counseling to combat the trauma of the continuing conflict and to support medical treatment for immediate and chronic war rape injuries
  • That women’s rights and human rights education must be expanded for women, men, the military, militias, police and youth
  • That awareness of the dangers of sexual and gender based violence and dialogue among all community members including women and men must be promoted and facilitated
  • That there must be an increase in livelihood support for women and men along with other efforts to promote economic growth and stability
  • That women and women’s organizations along with other stakeholders must be at the negotiating table to broker a lasting peace
  • That the government of the DRC and the international community must invest in the appropriate infrastructure and human capital to ensure women’s safety and bring war rape perpetrators to justice
  • That the international community must place the elimination of rape as a weapon of war at the top of the global policy agenda.

Isn’t it time the global community joined Congolese women and men in their quest to stop the violence?

Patricia Morris
is Director of Program Development at Women for Women International.  Prior to joining WfWI, Dr. Morris was the Deputy Director of InterAction’s Commission on the Advancement of Women.

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Patricia Morris