By Alexandra Reich
Contributing Writer

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


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by Rashika Rakibullah
Staff Writer

Early last week, Indian authorities began preparations for the country’s 2014 general elections, a nine-phase, month-long event that will break records as the largest election in history. 814 million Indians are eligible to vote this year in a country that traditionally sees about 55 percent of its population turn in ballots, meaning that hundreds of millions of people will be flocking to the polls in the upcoming weeks to elect 543 people to the Lok Sabha, India’s parliament. The Lok Sabha members will then elect the Prime Minister. This election is crucial: the country faces a stagnating economy, massive corruption, and continuing tensions between its many ethnic and religious factions. Current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Congress Party-led coalition government have been in power for the past decade, so whoever wins this election will be responsible for ushering in a sorely-needed fresh administration.

The election is particularly important for India’s women and girls. Recent events such as the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case and the 2013 Mumbai gang-rape case have brought the condition of India’s women to the world’s attention. Despite its status as an emerging global power, many parts of the country remain isolated, especially in the far northern states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In these rural areas, women’s rights are frequently violated. Female infanticide is common; girls’ education is foregone in favor of young marriage; the dowry remains a stubbornly persistent cultural norm; and domestic violence and sexual assault are under-reported and largely ignored. Even in the larger, urban centers of the nation, women face rampant abuse and sexual assault that is rarely prosecuted (in Delhi, a city of 10 million people, only one person was convicted of rape in 2012). Nationwide, female illiteracy lags far behind the male rate and atrocities such as acid-throwing and dowry killings continue to rise. Women’s rights’ activists have used the election as an opportunity to re-frame the discussion on gender equality by releasing a “Womanifesto:” a set of six demands that they hope the next Prime Minister and his administration will prioritize.

On paper, the three main candidates are similar in their plans to reform and improve women’s rights if elected. All three have pledged support for the Women’s Reservation Bill, which would ensure women a third of all seats on both the national and state legislatures. They have also voiced support for the type of fast-track courts that convicted and sentenced the offenders in the Nirbhaya case last year. The three major parties (the ruling Indian National Congress (INC) whose candidate is Rahul Gandhi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi, and the Aam Adme Party (AAP) led by Arvind Kejriwal) have all paid ample lip service to the need for greater gender equality, but there are no guarantees that campaign promises will be kept post-election. Further, the backgrounds of the two main contenders, Modi and Gandhi, does not give credence to the idea that women’s rights will be a central priority if either is elected.

According to many analysts, BJP candidate Narendra Modi has a good chance of winning the Prime Minister’s seat. The BJP is India’s main center-right party and espouses Hindu nationalism and social conservatism. The popular 63-year-old Modi has been the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat since 2001. The status of women in his state is abysmal: the male-female ratio hints at a high rate of female infanticide, the rate of female illiteracy is higher than the nationwide average, and convictions for rape are lower than in the rest of the country. Tensions between Muslims and Hindus are very high and are exacerbated by the BJP’s Hindu nationalist ideology, called Hindutva.

Such ideology could be dangerous for women throughout India if Modi is elected. The BJP’s deeply patriarchal views towards women ostensibly honors them as mothers and wives, but in practice, this translates into “moral policing” and harassment carried out by its supporters. Additionally, the BJP’s involvement in communal conflicts often results in the additional violation of women through rape and sexual assault during riots. Early in his administration, Modi faced harsh criticism for his alleged role in the 2002 anti-Muslim violence during which 1200 Muslims were massacred and countless women were raped by Hindu Gujuratis. Following the incidents, a Special Investigation Team was assembled by the Supreme Court to look into Modi’s role in the violence. Although no evidence was found incriminating him, many in India believe that he knew the violence would occur beforehand, condoned the attacks, and continued to encourage enmity between Gujarat’s Muslims and Hindus following the riots. Indians voters are right to wonder how Modi will react to such incidents were they to occur while he is Prime Minister, and whether women will truly be safer under his rule.

As his name suggests, INC candidate Rahul Gandhi’s background is quite different from Modi’s. He is the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister; his grandmother Indira and his father Rajiv both served terms as Prime Minister, and his mother Sonia is currently the leader of the INC. His impressive family has not been universally popular: his grandmother was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards while still in office and his father was assassinated while running for re-election by a member of the Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lankan separatist group. Despite being a scion of India’s preeminent political dynasty, Gandhi himself lacks political experience, which makes it difficult for analysts and voters alike to assuage his policy priorities. The INC is India’s most prominent center-left party, known for its secularism and social liberalism, and Gandhi has often spoken of his desire to empower India’s women and young people. However, it is questionable whether he has the political expertise and acumen to transform his ideals into reality. The 43-year-old has only served one term on India’s national legislature and although he is currently the Vice President of the INC, he has few political deeds to his name. Despite his leadership within his party and in youth and student politics, his detractors criticize his image as a thinker rather than a doer as they assail the dynastic nature of the Gandhi family’s presence in Indian politics.

Indian citizens, and especially women, have a difficult decision to make. On the one hand, Modi’s reputation as a conservative nationalist is deeply troubling. However, he does have a few things to boast about—Gujarat’s economic trajectory over the past decade has been the envy of many other states. As India attempts to battle rising inflation and slowing growth, Modi’s plan of improving infrastructure and promoting urbanization (nicknamed “Modinomics”) could help it move past the stagnation it is facing, and his ties with India’s corporate leaders and businessmen could assist with the country’s development as well. For India’s women, further economic development could lead to improved rights and greater freedom and agency. On the other hand, voters have an idealistic and progressive choice for Prime Minister in Gandhi, but his lack of political expertise might hinder his success. Additionally, the INC’s economic policies include various welfare plans in keeping with its ideology of economic inclusion, something many Indian voters are not on board with in the middle of an economic downturn. It remains to be seen which candidate will win and how the status of Indian women will be affected come May 16.

Image by Al Jazeera English