Responding to Rape as a Weapon of War in the Democratic Republic of Congo: CIDA's Actions in an Evaluative Framework

By Arielle K. Eirienne
2009, Vol. 1 No. 10 | pg. 1/4 |


A seventy-year-old woman unveils the story of her rape in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC):

At the time of the incident, I was living … in the bush, hiding from the war. One day, I had gone to the fields to collect some food to eat. As I was cultivating, I heard someone screaming loudly and the next minute armed men appeared in front of me. I tried to escape, but one of the men pulled me by the hand and knocked me over. He told me if I moved, he would kill me. He … started to hit me. Then he raped me. He also introduced his fingers inside of me and he told me if he had a machete, he would cut me. (quoted in Médecins Sans Frontières 2004:9)

Stories like this woman’s are common in the DRC, so common, in fact, that the Executive Director of the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM), Noeleen Heyzer, has claimed that “Nearly all the women interviewed in Kinshasa or in the Eastern DRC … have been victims of sexual and rape” (UNIFEM 2006). Noting that many rapes remain unreported, the Joint Initiative on Sexual Violence against Women and Children has placed the incidence of rapes at at least 40,000 between the 1998 outbreak of the DRC’s most recent and a 2003 analysis (cited in Amnesty International 2004a:13; World Health Organization n.d.).

These 40,000 plus cases of sexual violence are not isolated incidents, not merely tens of thousands of individual cases of permanent physical disability and psychological devastation piled atop one another. Victims do suffer individually, but their communities suffer as well; rape in the DRC has become a ‘weapon of war,’ a further means of ravaging entire towns and villages already rife with murder and infrastructural disrepair. It brings bodily and mental harm upon those subjected to it, but by sparking societal scorn of those raped and reducing victims’ capacity to be economically productive, it also stymies whole communities.

Thus, if the international community is to help heal the victims of the DRC’s wartime rapes, it not only must provide treatment for those individuals physically attacked but also, conceptualizing entire communities as having been raped, must consider broader community development concerns. The Joint Initiative on Sexual Violence Against Women and Children in the DRC, a recent United Nations (UN) endeavour to which the Canadian Agency (CIDA) has donated over 15 million dollars, holds promise because it recognizes both individuals’ medical/psychological concerns and the need for “socio-economic reintegration” of victims (CIDA 2006b). Nonetheless, the degree to which this new program will in practice stimulate the sociological revival and economic development of entire towns and villages remains to be seen.


In the West, rape has come to be regarded as an attempt for one individual to gain power over another, i.e., as an act of personal aggression. In the context of Africa’s deadliest war on record (Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict 2006), however, rape has surpassed the level of interpersonal attack to become a weapon of war, an attack of one entire group upon another.

Following many years of instability, a late-1990s coup served as the precursor to the DRC’s most recent war, begun in 1998. Multiple parties have become embroiled in the fighting, including the country’s Mai Mai militia, as well as fighters from Angola, Burundi, Chad, Namibia, , Sudan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Most if not all of these parties have employed rape as a weapon of war (Kern 2006; Pratt and Werchick 2004:9). Though the adversaries have agreed to a ceasefire, and though many of the foreign troops officially withdrew in 2002, sporadic violence persists, and combatants have continued to rape women, men, and children that they consider adversaries.

One feature of rape as a form of group attack lies in the number of people perpetrating each rape. Gang rapes have become so prevalent in the DRC that in a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in the town of Baraka, more than eighty percent of victims have claimed that two to five fighters raped them (Clarkson 2004:17), and Amnesty International adds that up to twenty assailants may participate in a single rape incident (2004a:19). The more striking characteristic, however, is that such rapes are carried out not only by groups but also against groups. Amnesty International cites instances of collective rape, in which combatants physically violate multiple victims at once (p. 20); nonetheless, even when attackers rape individual women, men, girls, or boys, they seek to attack entire communities. Amnesty describes rape as a weapon of war as “a deliberate strategy of warfare to destabilise the opposition forces … and to secure control through fear and intimidation” (2004b). Clarkson too emphasizes that such rapes are intended to devastate communities at large: “As a weapon of war sexual violence is highly effective. The outcome is a traumatized, impoverished population” (p. 17).

Rape accomplishes this communal degradation in several ways. First, cultural beliefs allow communities to view the rape of a single person as an attack on several. Pratt and Werchick claim that a victim’s “whole family is deeply shamed by association” (2004:12) and add that by law, at least the law in place in 2004, to rape a woman is to commit “a against the honor of the husband” (p. 17). While such a legal standard emphasizes a lack of concern for women, it also allows the rapes of a few people to serve as proxy attacks on many. Also, rapes frequently render virgins permanently unmarriageable, but if young raped women do manage to marry, their families again suffer because few men will offer them dowries (Pratt and Werchick 2004:12).

Furthermore, even if the rest of their communities were to remain intact, those raped would find themselves less able to contribute economically, both because of the medical and psychological destruction rapes cause and because rapes occurring in the context of normal productive activities make victims reluctant to resume those previously innocent pursuits. While assaulting their victims, rapists may resort to almost every possible means of physical brutality: bayoneting of limbs (Phiri and Alford 2006:27); amputation of various body parts (Kern 2006); “mutilation” of eyes, ears, and lips (Goodwin 2004:18); burning (Kern 2006); and/or blinding of victims by scraping their eyes with salt (Kern 2006). Acts of sexual torture may prove even more grotesque; as in the opening quotation, in which a woman admitted that her rapist had threatened to slice her, and presumably her genitals, with a machete, many rapists have shoved machetes, knives, wood, glass, nails, sand, sticks, or even hot peppers into women’s vaginas (Amnesty International 2004b; Goodwin 2004:18; Kern 2006). In some instances, attackers have squeezed guns through their victims’ genitalia and shot (Amnesty International 2004a:12; Kern 2006; Goodwin 2004:19).

Even when they survive such attacks, those raped emerge so badly damaged that some must undergo four or five surgical operations (Kern 2006; Sisulu 2004:45). Many survivors face fistulae, sterility, and sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhoea; even quotidian concerns such as urination and menstruation often become nightmarish for the raped (Pratt and Werchick 2004:12). HIV/AIDS too impacts rape victims, with estimates of the number of victims infected ranging from 12 percent in a particular region (Pratt and Werchick 2004:12) to 25 to 33 percent in general (Kern 2006), and combined with the lack of antiretroviral treatment, the prevalence of the illness leads Goodwin to claim that rapes “all too often become automatic death sentences” (2004:19). Rape can also shatter its victims psychologically, leading to depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, and trauma can be so severe that some victims refuse to speak (Kern 2006).

Difficulty finding treatment exacerbates the problem. Goodwin reports that those raped “must walk for days or weeks, often with massive injuries, and risk new capture by roving rebel bands, before reaching assistance” (2004:19) and tells of one seventy-year-old rape victim who spent three years “in the bush” before she finally received treatment (p. 18). Even if the victims can access medical centres, the centres may be able to provide only meagre care; Pratt and Werchick report that as of 2004, Maniema province offered a single part-time gynaecologist (2004:15), and in addition to calling mental health care “practically non-existent,” Amnesty International has claimed that many “inadequately trained” health-care workers do not know “how to treat STDs” (2004b). In addition, treatment carries financial costs to patients, whose already extreme poverty – with many people having approximately 0.20 U.S. dollars per day (Amnesty International 2004b) – has worsened because of the economic devastation that war rapes themselves wreak. Thus, mental and medical damages often persist, and if those raped must struggle to walk or to perform normal bodily functions, or if they withdraw from society to such an extent that they cannot even talk to others, then contributing to their communities’ economic well-being – through collecting food or walking to fish markets, for example – becomes increasingly difficult. If only a few people suffered rapes, then economic consequences would be limited, affecting select families only; enough Congolese have been raped, however, that the combined effects of each victim’s diminished productivity severely impair entire communities.

Furthermore, because rapes often occur while women are harvesting crops or walking to market, once-innocent settings become socially constructed as dangerous battlegrounds, and victims come to fear the very arenas upon which their communities’ economic livelihoods depend: “Fear of going to fields and markets, sites where rapes often take place, has resulted in spiralling malnutrition and economic loss” (Pratt and Werchick 2004:7). Kern further elaborates upon these consequences: “Thus, in fertile lands with a year-round growing season, people in the country are beginning to go hungry” (2006).

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