DRC: Rape as a Tool of War

by Judith Sijstermans

The Democratic Republic of Congo has been torn apart by war and rebellion since the Belgian King Leopold’s brutal colonialism. The country’s death rate is fifty seven percent higher than other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which can be blamed particularly on a devastated infrastructure that cannot treat the diseased or protect its citizens. UNICEF has said that half of the Congolese population lives on less than 1 US dollar a day. One in four Congolese children don’t make it past the age of five. In short, these statistics elucidate the dire situation of the DRC, but there is one very pressing issue in the Congo that does not receive attention. Specifically, rape has become a widespread and vicious tool of war used by armed rebels and soldiers across the country. Rape has become such an epidemic issue that the DRC is said to have the highest rate of sexual violence in the world.

Although the country, according to many UN officials and aid workers, is said to have the highest percentage of rape anywhere in the world, statistics are difficult to come by. One figure states that in one town, seventy percent of women reported violent rape. From 2004 to 2005, the UN estimates that as many as 100,000 women were sexually assaulted in only the eastern DRC. Statistics are difficult to come by because of the negative effects that women face after rape. Women fear coming out with stories of rape because they are often disowned and divorced by their husband because they’re thought of as diseased or tainted. Another scenario is that women are raped in front of their husbands, who are then shot, leaving women without any financial or moral support. There is also threat of retaliation from the men who raped them, because these men control particular regions with an iron fist. Rape is used as a tool of war because it dishonors and dehumanizes the opponent, particularly women who are left feeling helpless with no support.

Beyond social ostracizing and psychological harm, the rape occurring in the DRC is particularly brutal. Women are raped with sticks or knives, creating wounds that break holes internally. These holes are called fistulas and leave the women incontinent and dependent on caretakers. Fistulas can be surgically repaired by a skilled surgeon. The cost of comprehensive fistula surgery is $450. This cost is heavy on organizations trying to serve a growing number of women affected by fistulas. In addition, there is a lack of skilled doctors in the area. There are only two doctors in the Eastern DRC equipped to fix fistulas. Those who live isolated from hospitals must not only pay the $450 for the fistula surgery but they must also pay to get themselves to hospitals that can treat fistulas or must walk all the way, in pain and shunned because their condition causes a bad smell. Even if costs are paid by NGOs in the area, follow up treatments are too expensive for patients to afford.

Another cost leveled by rape is that of AIDS and HIV. Women who are raped can halt or try to stop infection by taking a drug within 72 hours of rape, but this drug isn’t widely available to them. Once they are infected, anti-retroviral drugs are an important measure that can help save women’s lives. However a program of anti-retroviral drugs run by Amnesty International costs $29 per month, a cost that NGO’s cannot cover for every woman and a cost that the women certainly cannot afford for themselves. On top of the cost for the drugs, the women must eat healthy food to help the effectiveness of the drugs, but this is a practically impossible goal. They can barely find food for themselves or their children. Because of the difficulties of treatment, women who are raped often suffer AIDS or HIV.

One significant offense to the women in the region is that there is widespread impunity. There simply isn’t a structure set up to prosecute the rapists effectively and there is no stereotypical perpetrator to target with punishment. If perpetrators are pinpointed they’re often let free because of their connections to the police or army. The rapists are on all sides of the conflict. The New York Times describes them as, “poorly paid and often mutinous government soldiers; homegrown militias called the Mai-Mai who slick themselves with oil before marching into battle; members of paramilitary groups originally from Uganda and Rwanda who have destabilized this area over the past 10 years in a quest for gold and all the other riches that can be extracted from Congo’s exploited soil.” Because of this, the rapes are strongly connected to a lack of infrastructure. Not only are rapes unpunished because of government corruption and disorder but the environment for these rapes to take place is created by this weak government. Young men are poor, angry, starving and have grown up within a culture of war. They are a product of the broken system in the DRC.

“Democratic Republic of Congo.” Genocide Intervention/Save Darfur. Accessed October 2010. <http://www.genocideintervention.net/areas_of_concern/democratic_republic_congo>.

“Fistula Fast Facts and Frequently Asked Questions.” The Fistula Foundation. Accessed October 2010. <http://www.fistulafoundation.org/aboutfistula/faqs.html>.

Gettleman, Jeffery. “Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War.” The New York Times. 7 October 2007. Accessed October 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/07/world/africa/07congo.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2&ref=congothedemocraticrepublicof>.

Kimani, Mary. “Congolese Women Confront Legacy of Rape.” Africa Renewal, Vol.20 #4 (January 2007).

Kristof, Nicholas D., and Sheryl WuDunn. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.



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