“The worst place in the world to be a woman.”
“The rape capital of the world.”
“A battleground for women’s bodies.”
All of these phrases have been used over the years to describe the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country plagued for decades with conflict-derived violence against women.
Conflict-driven sexual and gender-based violence has been rampant in the DRC since the mid-1990s, beginning with the commencement of the First Congo War and continuing to the present day. At various points in the conflict, approximately 48 women were raped per hour in the DRC. Thousands more have been maimed, killed, and displaced from their homes. It is more dangerous to be a woman in the DRC than it is to be a member of an armed militia group.
As conflict remains rampant and aggressors do not face any consequences for their actions, violence against women has been increasing in the DRC. While there is no “quick fix” for diminishing violence against women, it is nonetheless highly important that immediate action is taken.
Women who are victims of violence in the DRC must have access to medical care for both their physiological and psychological needs. In addition to addressing their injuries and reproductive health needs post-assault, women must also be provided with counseling to help them heal from trauma and reintegrate back into their families and communities. A simultaneous effort must be made to teach men and boys, especially militia members, that rape is wrong and to encourage them to stop other men from engaging in sexual assault. They also must be reminded that rape is not a weapon or tactic of conflict, but a crime against humanity.
But education shouldn’t stop there. Education on gender-based violence also needs to be prioritized during the reintegration of women who are victims of violence back into their communities. Communities, and especially the men within them, must be educated on the importance of welcoming their partners back into their families following an assault, and on the most effective ways to do so. Furthermore, local community leaders must promote acceptance for rape victims and spread this message to fellow community members. This is especially important in the DRC, where rape victims are often highly stigmatized and shunned by their communities and families. Finally, in addition to assault-centered education, women and men must receive educational opportunities that allow them to thrive economically, diminishing the propensity for continued conflict long-term.
To end gender-based violence in the DRC, solutions must also address the impunity of violence. Perpetrators need to be detained and prosecuted. Victims should be able to seek justice, and assailants should be prevented from perpetuating another act of violence. Furthermore, prosecution of assailants will help instill a societal attitude of intolerance for sexual assault–a much-needed deterrent that will help end gender-based violence long-term. The DRC has made some progress in this area in recent years, but not nearly enough in light of the number of assaults committed. Courts have only handed down 187 convictions for rape by military personnel over the past few years, and only three of these convictions were for senior officials. Courts need to be much more active in pursuing and prosecuting offenders, and much more willing to prosecute high-ranking officials who often order or direct sexual assault crimes in conflict. The recent rape conviction of a Congolese general is a promising first step in the right direction; however, much more progress needs to happen much more quickly.
Finally, while the international community recognizes the extensiveness of conflict-driven sexual violence in the DRC and conflict’s disproportionate impact on women, more needs to be done to respect and promote women’s human rights in order to end sexual violence. Women need to be better protected during conflict and in refugee camps. Furthermore, women need to be more readily integrated into any and all peace-building processes. Integrating women into peace-building processes will not only help ensure respect for women’s rights, but will also decrease the likelihood of future conflict, as countries in which women are treated equally and are in positions of authority are often less likely to engage in armed conflict.
While parts of many of these solutions are already being implemented in the DRC, the level and extent to which they are being implemented must increase. The uptick in sexual violence in the DRC in recent years indicates that not enough is being done to stop the problem, despite its urgency. Conflict-driven sexual violence in the DRC will only truly diminish when short-term solutions that address women’s immediate medical and safety needs and long-term solutions that usher in attitude changes towards sexual violence in the country are both thoroughly executed. The international community must take a much more active role in ensuring that gender-based violence in the DRC conflict (and all conflicts) ends immediately and in perpetuity. Until then, thousands of women, as well as men and children, will continue to needlessly suffer due to stagnated national and international action. It’s past time to step up. This must end now.
This is the second in a series of blogs for the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, which runs from the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women to Human Rights Day on December 10th. The blog series focuses on the theme of this year’s campaign, gender-based violence and militarism.