Sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one of the most pervasive and devastating issues facing the country today. Decades of fighting over the First and Second Congo War have destroyed government and healthcare infrastructure, creating some of the world health and development indicators in the world. The Congo Wars are sometimes referred to “Africa’s World War” because they involved so many neighboring countries, and because studies have placed the death toll around 5.4 million, making it the deadliest conflict since World War ll.
In 2007, UN-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes called raped in the DRC the “worst in the world” in comparison to other states of comparable development levels. In 2010, the U.N.’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict Margot Wallstrom called the DRC the “rape capital of the world.” The U.N. estimates that 200,000 women and girls have been assaulted in the past 12 years, with more than 18,000 cases reported between January and September 2008 alone. Medical experts estimate that thousands more cases are going unreported. Intense stigma associated with being a rape survivor, stressed and inadequate healthcare infrastructure, and inadequate justice and accountability systems make it difficult for women to report instances of sexual abuse.
The majority of these rapes are not occurring randomly, but rather they are systematic attacks on women and girls in a conflict which increasingly targets civilians. An April 2010 report by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative revealed that 60 percent of rape victims in South Kivu were gang raped by armed militias. Settings for these rapes include forced incest, gang rape, rape in public, rape with foreign objects, and urogenital mutilation. Female rape victims are at a high risk of contracting HIV because tearing, cuts and bruising within the vulva and vagina facilitate the transmission of the virus, according to Doctors Without Borders. The fear of HIV increases stigmatization of rape victims within their communities.
Stigmatization is one of the key elements to understanding the patterns of social isolation and rejection after a victim is raped. In a report by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and the Open Society Institute, researchers found that stigmatization after rape was an overarching pattern in communities. Women with children born of rape, women who have been gang raped, women with fistula as a consequence of rape, and women testing positive for HIV are especially vulnerable to social isolation. The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and The Open Society Institute found that 1 in 3 women reported being rejected by their husbands and 1 in 15 reported being rejected by their communities.
After they are raped, women are perceived to be “contaminated” by their attackers, and many times they are turned out by their husbands and by their communities. This is directly correlated to fears of HIV and STI transmission.
Due to inadequate healthcare infrastructure, thousands of victims are unable to seek treatment or testing for HIV and STIs. Treatment at this time is more essential than ever, due to the fact that beyond needing medical attention, many women rejected by their husbands have no where else to turn.
It is important we acknowledge the significant impact conflict and systematic rape has on the lives of thousands of women and men, as this understanding will only broaden our ability to be able to positively affect the global discourse surrounding HIV AIDS transmission.
Please Note: Although this article primarily concerns women, both men and women have been the targets of rape in DRC. I focus on female victims in this article because the rape of women occurs proportionally at a much higher rate, and because much of the research on social isolation and sexual violence treatment centers focuses on female victims. Understanding how rape impacts male victims is one of the understudied aspects of the DRC conflicts.
Suggestions for further reading:
“Characterizing Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Final Report for the Open Society Institute. August 2009. Accessed 12/6/2011. <http://hhi.harvard.edu/programs-and-research/program-on-humanitarian-effectiveness/54-democratic-republic-of-congo>.
Mawathe, Anne. “Haunted by Congo rape dilemma.” BBC News – Africa. Mary 15, 2010. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8677637.stm>.
MONUSCO, the U.N. Stabilization Organization in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. <http://monusco.unmissions.org/Default.aspx?tabid=4072>.
“Sexual Violence.” Doctors Without Borders. <http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/news/issue.cfm?id=3466>.
“UN official calls DR Congo ‘rape capital of the world’ ”. BBC News – Africa. April 28, 2010. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8650112.stm>.