Rape as an Instrument of War in the Congo

The conflict raging in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most brutal wars in the world today. Four million people are thought to have perished in a civil war that raged throughout Congo from 1998 to 2002. And while peace has been restored to most of the country — which is the size of western Europe — the conflict lingers on in the east. Rape, as this report from The Guardian explains, is a preferred instrument of war and terror used by all sides to the conflict. How bad is it?

Rape has been used to terrorise and punish civilians in Congo who support the “wrong side”, and it is perhaps no coincidence that it was also a tool of genocide in the mass murder of the Tutsis. Sexual violence is now so widespread that the medical aid charity, Medecins sans Frontieres, says that 75 percent of all the rape cases it deals with worldwide are in eastern Congo. Darfur is a distant second.

But those are just statistics. One victim provides us the dismal perspective from the ground.

“Every woman in the village leaves at night to sleep in the bush because of the raping. They still loot but if they can’t find us they can’t rape us,” [a rape victim] said.

Augustin Augier [of Medecins Sans Frontier] said that women in many villages dare not sleep in their own homes. Others are too afraid even to go to the outskirts of their communities to tend to crops because so many women have been seized in the fields, contributing to the rise in malnutrition and disease that has claimed so many lives.

“People live in fear so they live in the bush. They expose themselves to diseases: malaria, gastro-enteritis. It’s cold at night. All of this claims lives,” he said.

Terrible. But there is a bit of positive news coming from the region today. The DRC and the government of Rwanda — an instigator of conflict in Congo’s east — have agreed to join forces to disarm a Hutu militia, which is one of many armed groups ravaging the east. Rwanda has also agreed to tighten its border and prevent arms shipments to a Tutsi militia that is battling DRC government forces in the east. To be sure, this is a step in the right direction. But given the misery of the place, progress should ultimately be measured by the relative improvements of the quality of life of the people, especially women, living in eastern DRC.