By Alexandra Reich
The frequent instances of sexual violence against women in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are an attack on human rights. Sexual assaults often occur in areas surrounding camps for internally displaced people, or IDP camps, within the DRC. The IDP camps’ perimeters experience security issues due to the conflict between the Congolese army and rebel groups. In one camp, Médecins Sans Frontières teams treat up to 28 female sexual assault victims a day. The most direct cause of the frequent sexual attacks is the significant presence of armed militia in the eastern DRC. Armed military men are responsible for the majority of the sexual assaults in the South Kivu province of the DRC – a trend that suggests rebel soldiers are using sexual violence as a terror technique, which can have devastating consequences for the individual victims.
Mass civilian rape causes both medical risks and negative societal impacts. The medical consequences of rape include the risk of sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy, as well as physical damage by the assailant. Victims of sexual violence in the DRC experience social rejection in addition to the physical consequences. Many women have reported verbal abuse from their husbands as a result of their sexual assault. One victim reflects on her attack, “I would preferred to have been killed that day to escape from the shame.” As a result of Congolese society’s tendency to hold multiple sexual partners as a taboo principle, rape has scarring consequences on a woman’s social life.
The current sexual violence epidemic can be attributed to the violent past of the DRC. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, violence peaked from 1996 to 1997 and 1998 to 2003 during the two Congo wars; armed rebel groups and abundant fighting resulted in 3.4 million internally displaced people. During such times of conflict, Congolese rebels often employed mass rape as a civilian terror tactic. The present DRC conflict can be traced back to 2008, when the eastern section of the nation experienced a renewal of violence with several rebel groups. The Congolese government attempted peace negotiations with an organization of Tutsi rebels called the National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP. These failed, leading to the formation of the M23 rebel group in 2012. Although 2013 brought peace negotiations between the DRC government and the M23 rebels, the DRC currently faces problems with several other armed rebel groups. Due to these concurrent rebellions, the DRC remains in a vortex of political instability. The DRC under Kabila, consumed by the issues of the various armed rebel groups, has failed to prioritize the human rights and security of the general Congolese population.
Clearly, internal conflict in the DRC has resulted in high numbers of internally displaced people with no means of protection. In 2013 there were over 2.9 million IDPs in the DRC, mostly concentrated on the eastern side of the nation. The women in the IDP camps formed by refugees were targeted for sexual assaults. One MSF team stationed in the Mugunga III IDP camp documented 95 victims of sexual violence over the course of a month. Mass rape was used strategically as an intimidation tactic for communities that were reputed to support groups conflicting with the attacker’s group. The root of the problem thus lies in the abundance of armed soldiers in the DRC. Due to the DRC’s current state of instability however, a strong exogenous force may be better suited to address the problem of sexual violence in the IDP camps.
Trying to be this force, the United Nations confronted the general problem of widespread violence in the DRC in 1999 with the formation of MONUC (United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo). In 2010, the MONUC program was rewritten as MONUSCO, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. MONUSCO, currently operating with over 21,000 military personnel, has the potential to be a formidable force against excessive violence, including sexual violence, in the DRC. However, even UN intervention could not prevent the resurgence of conflict with the M23 rebel group in 2012. MONUSCO responded to this violence with a 2013 intervention brigade that was intended to protect civilians and aid in stabilization efforts, but it was not enough.
The MONUSCO mandate states that one of the organization’s goals is the physical protection of the civilians from violence. This includes sexual violence. However, as reports of armed attacks on unprotected villages and IDP camps continue to break out, it is clear that under the current mandate, the effects of this protection only reach a small portion of the population. Widespread sexual assault remains an issue even with the presence of MONUSCO in the DRC. In 2010, data suggested that 39.7 percent of women in the Eastern DRC had experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes. Scholar Boutellis pointed out that the failure to accomplish one portion of the mission results in the decomposition of public faith in the organization as a whole.
MONUSCO has the resources to improve security in the IDP camps where individuals are particularly vulnerable, but they have been unsuccessful so far. Médecins Sans Frontières specifically criticized “those responsible for protecting civilians” for failing to provide security that could lessen sexual assaults. The lack of MONUSCO-provided protection is likely due to the organization’s focus on the DRC’s political issues. If the focus were even partially shifted to civilian protection, MONUSCO would be able to make a significant impact against the rebel groups.
While using an armed force to prevent sexual assault is not by any means a permanent solution, it will be sufficient to decrease sexual violence in the DRC while stabilization efforts are being implemented. This policy has the potential to drastically increase the efficiency of MONUSCO’s civilian protection efforts. Once the DRC is politically stable and rebel groups such as the M23 are pacified, militarized sexual violence will not be as abundant, and the presence of peacekeeping troops in IDP camps would no longer be necessary.
The proposed policy is not an alteration to MONUSCO’s mandate, but a request to shift a portion of the organization’s focus to the most vulnerable members of the Congolese population. Before the DRC is able to become a stable nation and quell the rebel groups, external protection of critical populations-such as those IDP camps-has the potential to positively affect hundreds of thousands of Congolese citizens. The protection efforts are intended to improve overall security in these critical areas and decrease sexual violence until conflict in the DRC is less abundant.
As made apparent by the DRC’s unstable history, the issue of sexual violence is not something that can be solved with the introduction of one policy. Complete elimination of the issue will be a product of internal stabilization efforts by the DRC. However, in the country’s current state, the protection of particularly vulnerable populations by external peacekeepers will be the most efficient short-term solution to decreasing the number of sexual assaults.
Image by United Nations Photo