The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

The Abuse of Women in Congo

In addition to losing their husbands, children, parents and neighbors, many women, especially in Eastern Congo, have lost their dignity through rape. The UN estimates that 200,000 women and gals have been victims of sexual violence since 1998. And in 2008 alone, 16,000 cases were reported. Unfortunately, the perpetrators are not only the rebels and hooligans, but also the very government forces supposed to protect the civilians. And while the rate of rape has increased in an era of war, Congo’s traditional culture, which largely demeans women, has falsely justified rape in many men’s minds.

Besides looting and killing, different rebel groups have used rape as a tool to destabilize families. Rape is a favored weapon because victims of rape are stigmatized by their families, and neither are the resultant babies welcomed. Historically, rape has been and still is viewed as taboo, making it an easy choice for anyone looking to mess with the populations: so naturally, it has increased with the war. "What we are seeing in the DRC is a new phenomenon directly associated with the conflict," said Lyric Thompson, an international policy analyst at advocacy group Women for Women. "Rape has been widely used as a weapon of war. As soldiers have returned home, violence and abuse against women has moved into domestic life." (All

Culturally, Congolese women are at loss when it comes to issues of respect and value. Many of their cultures uphold practices that demean women and drive them to settle for less than they deserve: this has made the rape trend even easier to perpetuate. For example, in the Hemba tribe in order to cleanse yourself after your husband’s death, you sleep with his younger brother. Stéphanie Mutonkole is a member of the Sanga tribe and explains how, among her people, it is customary for a new tribal chief to have intercourse with his mother before he can be enthroned, regardless of the age of the mother. When it comes to marriage customs, a raped girl can be married off to the perpetrator without them demanding bride price: rape victims are viewed as worthless and so can be married off free of charge, compared to their ‘valuable’ virgin counterparts. So since everyone is facing financial trouble right now, raping women has become a cheap way to get wives.

One wonders where the government is when women are being raped from one year to another, crying out to no avail. Truth is, there are no strong structures in place which can potentially help these women: the legislations are weak and unpaid officials have no incentive to fight the practice. For instance, forced marriages, though deemed illegal, still happen widely. Women are still widely denied education and health care, which has caused them to also underestimate their own value in society, by simply always accepting where the men place them. "The biggest challenge for Congolese justice is that civilian and criminal courts do not exist in our villages," one civilian said. "In the village you only have customary tribunals and the judgment is rendered according to customs. It is very difficult for a tribal chief to renounce his tradition."

Human Rights’ Watch (HRW), an organization which has been very active in Congo and done a lot of work on the issue of rape, is very appalled that despite all the buzz and publicity, rape incidents are hardly reducing. In early 2009, HRW’s researcher, Kippenberg and her colleagues took on a new investigation. She focused on the 14th brigade of the Congolese Army, whose record illustrates some of the broader problems contributing to their own practice of sexual violence: internal divisions, chaotic chain of command, impunity, and poor living conditions for soldiers. Executive Director Kenneth Roth met with President Kabila in July 2009 and they made what he calls progress in anti rape strategy: a commitment to prosecute the perpetrators. Many cases have since been opened up and a few high profile officers prosecuted. HRW has also held public education sessions in Goma. "For justice to prevail," Kippenberg says, "senior military officials must continue to be investigated and prosecuted for sexual crimes."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited DR Congo in August 2009 and held meetings, during which rape was discussed in detail. She also met with the country’s president Joseph Kabila and announced that the problem of rape in Congo is not one that the country can fight alone; outside help is necessary. Clinton was horrified by what the women have suffered, and promised that the US government would help train local doctors and provide cameras so that the crimes were documented. She also pledged US$17 million in aid for victims of sexual violence.

In partnership with Human Rights Watch and other groups, Mathilde Muhindo, a former member of the Congolese parliament and founder of the Olame Center, has pressed the European Union, the United States, and others to address ongoing atrocities in eastern Congo. She led a coalition of local women’s organizations that advocated successfully for a comprehensive law on sexual violence. Muhindo has faced intimidation for her work but refuses to be silenced. Human Rights Watch honors Muhindo for her unfaltering dedication to the safety, health, and rights of often forgotten women in eastern Congo.

Sharon Muhwezi,





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