The rape capital of the world

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Sexual violence in the Congo

Ed Kapp
News Writer

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a decade of widespread sexual violence against women has earned the central African nation the distinction of being the “rape capital of the world”. 

From the beginning of the Second Congo War in 1998 to the current day, the prevalence of rape in eastern DR Congo has been described as the worst in the world.

Once used as a weapon of warfare, sexual violence against women has now become, as said by UN humanitarian official John Holmes, “a cultural phenomenon”. Although the UN’s tally for 2010 was somewhere around 11,000 instances of rape, the actual number is believed to be much higher.

According to many, including University of Regina political science and international studies professor Joseph Mburu, DR Congo’s long history of oppression and violence contributes heavily to the nation’s sexual violence problem in several ways.

“One is the culture of violence itself. People, specifically the soldiers, have grown up in that scenario. The other thing is that the system right from colonial rule to the post-independence period, up to now, there has never been a stable government that is able to establish institutions. We have a lack of clear institutions and clear rules at the same time. That is very critical, because in the modern times – the modern societies – as that which Congo has been wanting to establish must replace the old order.”

“We have traditions and culture that were very central among societies in Congo – those have been destroyed in one way or another. Strong institutions should’ve taken the place of what traditions and culture used to play. So, you have traditions that were against types of behavior – like rape – and they were very clear that you don’t get a woman by force. Now, remove that tradition, and you don’t have a law that says that that’s clearly not permitted. You have a vacuum now, because of a lack of that, because of an ineffective judicial or ineffective police force we have these kinds of things that are taking place. Much of the rape that we have seen in the past has been carried out by soldiers. Either government soldiers or armed guards; we’re talking about 90 per cent of rapes.”

In an effort to help restore stability to DR Congo and its largely vulnerable female population, the UN has over 20,000 uniformed personnel currently stationed in the Central African nation.

Although the UN is deployed on the pretense of helping DR Congo, many have been critical of the UN mission during their over decade-long tenure in the country. At no point during their mission was this criticism harsher than when, in August of last year, upwards of 150 Congolese women and children were raped within a few kilometers of one of the UN’s largest bases.

Mburu believes that after instances like last August’s mass rape emerge questions regarding the efficacy of the UN’s mandate in DR Congo should be re-evaluated to better suit the circumstances at hand.

“It’s a bit difficult [to say what role the UN should  play in developing nations], given the mandate of the United Nations. Say, for example, it would be important if they were to take a real police role because the Congolese forces may not be adequate, as it were. So if they would’ve taken a more proactive role, at least to stabilize the region and work, it would be completely different,” he said. “The institutions would improve. But again, that would require some type of mandate from the United Nations, because that is not part of their mandate. I think its high time we reviewed what role the UN forces should play, especially in these types of situations.”

One effort to help curb the prevalence of sexual violence against women in DR Congo is the newly-opened City of Joy.

The City of Joy – a joint project by UNICEF and non-governmental organization V-Day – opened this February to temporarily care for victims of sexual violence. According to a recent press release, “City of Joy will serve 180 women between the ages of 14 and 35 every year with psychotherapy, [and] an extensive training programme comprising literacy, economics, and sexuality education.”

Although the opening of the City of Joy is doubtless a good sign, and it will almost definitely help many victims of sexual violence cope with their experience, Mburu insists that the City of Joy is only a piece of the puzzle in helping the women of DR Congo.
“By focusing on the victims, without dealing with the root cause, then you will still have more victims coming in. It’s a step in the right direction, at least to deal with the victims, but remember, you’re talking about a population of 70 million, and the root cause of the whole problem has to be addressed. Strong institutions, proper government.”

With a lack of strong institutions and a proper, functioning government, it appears as if DR Congo, and its population of over 70 million, may have a tough road ahead.

“We see rape issues that have appeared for a long time and it will take a long time to heal. The political situation is, again, grim; President Kabilla may not be that strong, elections will be held soon – the last elections that were held created divisions throughout the country and the country is divided on ethnic lines,” explained Mburu, who has worked extensively with both the Kenyan and Saskatchewanian governments.

“We have a country that is sitting on dangerous grounds, so, the future might be very grim. It will take a long time before that country stabilizes, if at all it will.”

A brief history of pain

Colonized by Belgium’s King Leopold II in 1887, DR Congo was under colonial rule for more than 70 years before gaining independence in 1960.

After gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, following a few months of government instability, then chief of staff of the newly-formed Congolese national army Joseph Mobutu – backed financially by both Belgium and the United States – carried out a military coup. The nation was renamed Zaire and a one-party political system was subsequently put into place. Soon after, Mobutu declared himself head of his authoritarian state.

During his rule, Mobutu’s regime was responsible for severe human rights abuses, unadulterated political repression, and jaw-dropping levels of corruption. Despite his shortcomings as a ruler – and well-founded allegations of corruption – Mobutu was backed financially throughout his nearly 30-year dictatorship by the United States, who agreed with his staunch anti-Communism stance.

After the horrific Rwandan genocide of 1994, more than two million Hutus feared reprisals from Rwanda’s new Tutsi-dominated government and were believed to have fled into neighbouring DR Congo.

After arriving, the Rwandan Hutus – many of which being militiamen responsible for acts of genocide in their native Rwanda – allied themselves with Mobutu’s central government. They then began attacking DR Congo’s vast population of ethnic Tutsis.

In response to the attacks in DR Congo, Rwanda’s Tutsi government began supporting rival militias to contend with both the Hutu militias and Congolese government troops.

The Tutsi forces, backed by neighbouring Uganda, eventually overthrew Mobutu’s authoritarian government. They subsequently instilled Laurent Kabila as the nation’s president.

As DR Congo’s head of state, Kabila failed to oust the violent Hutu militia from his nation. Rwanda, which had essentially put Kabila in power, shortly thereafter sent a new force to remove him from office.

Fearing the worst, Kabila called in help from Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Angola. For five long years all six countries – among others – fought a horrific proxy war across DR Congo.

After half a decade of fighting – and estimated five million casualties, and millions more displaced by violence – many have called the battling in DR Congo the most devastating conflict since World War II.

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