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When the Bare Becomes Unbearable

How Rape has become a Weapon of War in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Written By: Paula Koller-Alonso

Edited By: Rachel Kuo

Trigger warning: Mentions and descriptions of sexual violence


Bullets shoot holes through the body. Machetes slash and slice through the flesh. Bombs explode entire groups of bodies. But rape is a weapon that not only penetrates the body, mind, and soul, but also the victim’s voice: It silences those who survive.

Rape has been universally and perpetually used in warfare and conflict, especially against women. It is a bare and cheap weapon with the ability to produce and amass maximum psychological and physical control and terror over communities.

References to rape are found in early documentations of recorded history and religious texts, such as Homer’s Iliad and the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Yet, it was in the 20th century that Sexual Violence in conflict became more prominent and widespread. During the post-Cold War period, mass rape became categorised as a systematic weapon of war, accompanying strategies of ethnic cleansing and genocide: In the Rwandan genocide, over 500,000 women were raped and approximately 60,000 in the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Due to these draconian numbers, rape was finally recognised as a war crime in international law. Nevertheless, the high incidence of rape continue in one particular country: the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – a region that has been dubbed the “rape capital of the world”.

Rape is a weapon that not only penetrates the body, mind, and soul, but also the victim’s voice: It silences those who survive.

The UN has reported 27,000 sexual assaults in the most conflict prone zone, Kivu, in just one year, while over the course of the conflict, studies have accounted for 1.69 to 1.80 million women reporting rape. Panzi hospital in North Kivu stated that it had admitted more than 18,000 victims – an average of four a day – since it opened in 2003. Unto today, the UN peacekeeping force in the DRC, documents over 1000 cases annually, and these are just a fraction of the real number, as most women do not report rape, or die as a direct consequence. More than 65% of these cases are children, 10% of these younger than 10 years old. Dr. Mukwege, a gynaecologist at Panzi Hospital, claims that his patients range from ages 2 to 80, proving that rape has no age limit.

Today’s violence in the DRC is not necessarily fuelled by inter-African political and ethnic tensions, as was the case in the early 2000s, but by global competition over Congo’s natural resources. The DRC hosts approximately 60% of the world’s mining industry and 80% of the world’s reserves of coltan and has considerable deposits of uranium, diamonds, copper, gold, and tin. These natural resources are directly linked to the violence, as up to 19 militia groups and the FARDC (DRC national army) fight for control over the mining, extraction, and sale of minerals. Approximately $1.24 billion worth of gold is traded out of the country yearly. Unfortunately, despite the extreme violence that groups controlling the mines perform, international mining and multinational electronics companies continue to conduct business with them, (in)directly funding and giving them more power.

But how did this conflict become a battlefield fought on women’s bodies, and rape become a deadly weapon of war? One of the main ways is through the use of (dis)empowerment – strategically disempowering the group which is targeted and thus victimised (predominantly women), whilst simultaneously empowering perpetrators (predominantly militant men).

The Unruly Rule of Law

The legal realm in the DRC represents one of the first instances in which strategic disempowerment of women in favour of men occurs. There are laws that define Sexual Violence in DRC’s legal system include laws that define Sexual Violence; amendments were even made to include specification.

Yet, the divergence created between the civil and military code (the code under which civilians are trialled vs. that which affects soldiers and armed forces) establish a mechanism in which a reign of impunity for perpetrators is enabled.

Many of these Sexual Violence laws fall under the jurisdiction of the Civil instead of Military Code. Contrastingly, any crimes perpetrated by military officials, or acts committed as a weapon of war, fall under military jurisdiction, concurring to different legislation. Martial rape is treated under a separate set of laws, and the FARDC and civilian militia groups are trialled under the military code. The problem here is that the legal system conforms to the power and hierarchy of the military command chain, instead of that of the court. Although no rank in the army is supposedly immune from prosecution, judges have to have higher rank than those prosecuted. Currently, the highest-ranking judge in the DRC is a Brigadier General. So legally speaking, there are three ranks immune from prosecution in military court: Major General, Lieutenant General, and General.

Divergence created between the civil and military code establish a mechanism in which a reign of impunity for perpetrators is enabled.

Moreover, in the numerous gang rapes committed by soldiers, only the highest rank of the perpetrators is counted at court trials. High-ranking military officers are thus able to aid lower-ranking perpetrators in their criminal charges, giving them immunity from prosecution – this immunises those individuals whose status is above the judge serving on trial.

The current legal system also increases the likelihood of women falling victim to rape. Despite overarching constitutional legality meant to empower women economically and socially and protect them against rape, there is discriminatory legislation in place disempowering women, creating greater vulnerability. This is because it frames them as man’s property while decreasing their economic, political and social agency. Legally, women are often placed in man’s custody, and attain little, if any, financial autonomy from their husbands, even upon the man’s divorce or death. Adultery, for example, is an illegal practice, yet disproportionately discriminates against women, who can be punished for non-marital sexual acts. There is also no specification as to when these non-marital acts are non-consensual, aka rape. In these cases, women can be fined and trialled for being raped, as this “sexual intercourse” was enacted outside of the marital bed.

This discrimination is similar in cases of divorce, asset control, abandonment or death of a husband, where women are treated differently than men. In peace as in conflict times, in order to be perceived as empowered, women need to have labour market opportunities, and decision-making capabilities. But as the legal system currently stands, none of these elements are available to women – they are treated as de facto property of their family patriarchs.

(In) Security & Safety

There is an even bigger problem when addressing legal enforcement. Prison systems are extremely dysfunctional and weak. A large part of perpetrators brought to justice can escape. In 2009, a colonel who was accused of having ordered the rape of four girls, was arrested, but escaped from detention only a few months later. Amnesty International identified 141 FARDC soldiers who escaped from prison with the help of their commanders in 2010. In 2017, within only two months, two of the biggest prison breaks occurred. In May, nearly 4,200 inmates were missing from the maximum-security Makala prison, and in June, more than 900 escaped from a jail in North Kivu.

Widespread corruption further weakens the security system. Perpetrators are able to bribe or buy their way out of prison sentences or trials, facilitating continued perpetration. Transparency International ranks the DRC as one of the lowest countries in their corruption index: Number 168/180. Corruption allows those convicted, or under investigation to bribe their way out of criminal offences. Amnesty International was repeatedly told that people can buy impunity for a variety of offences, including crimes under international law, such as rape. According to the Constitution, bail is banned in Sexual Violence cases. Yet, one lawyer described Sexual Violence trials as “a commercial enterprise for judges”. Greater legal power seems to lie in the hands of military officials and groups than with the legal and executive branches of the country (judges or police), contributing to an even greater frailing of DRC’s justice and security systems, and creating a broader disempowering climate in which Sexual Violence crimes are neither properly prosecuted nor enforced.

The Normalisation of Rape

The sheer quantity of rapes contribute to rape being seen as a natural side effect of conflict. The extent to which this normalisation has penetrated society, is already visible by the staunch increase in rapes committed by civilians. Since the Luanda Peace Agreement was signed in 2003, there has been a 17-fold increase in reported cases of civilian rape.

Congolese men have acknowledged that rape has become a norm for young males who grew up during the conflict in Eastern DRC’. This rise can be attributed to an increase in demobilised combatants who are reintegrating into society with minimal rehabilitation measures offered to them, or the consistent brutalisation that they are exposed to in civil society.

On the other side of the spectrum, rape survivors face dire ostracisation, abandonment and stigmatisation from family members and communities. They are guilted and shamed after an attack, labelled as an enemy woman, and if impregnated from the rape, are believed to be carrying a devil child.

Given how female survivors are victim-blamed, they fall silent about the attack, in fear of being identified. This fear reaches such an extent that the largest delay between the time of rape and the seeking of medical care tends to be over 1.5 years after the attack. Furthermore, the majority of survivors are not even accompanied by family or friends when seeking medical assistance (36%).

In the DRC, there are currently little to no institutions in place strong enough to deter perpetration from occurring, particularly evinced by the weak legal system. Perpetrators continue to attain more power and status, which enables them to continue and increase their perpetration of sexual crimes.

In contrast, the continued disempowerment of women, via institutionalised gender inequality combined with a systemic lack of agency and autonomy puts them at further risk of rape attacks.

In the DRC, women are not seen as valued, strong and equal members of society, but as properties of a patriarchal system that oppresses and weakens them. The inherent gender inequality constructs them as valuable weapons used for men’s punishment.

Their continued disempowerment hinders not only an outcry against sexual violence, but also chances of escaping conflict zones. The patriarchal system in DRC has thus institutionalised gender inequality and women’s vulnerability making their bare bodies unbearable weapons.


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