The eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is often described as the worst place in the world to be a woman. Rape is systematically used as a weapon of war by multiple militias — even by the Congolese army — as a way to control civilian women. These rape victims are further demoralized as they are subjected to intense domestic violence and sexual abuse by their families. As a result, many label Congo the “rape capital of the world," including the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström.
Rape in any country or state is deplorable, but the extent of systematic rape in Congo is unfathomable. It is not only a women's rights issue, but also a human rights issue. And yet, the international community isn't devoting the resources or attention to this symptom of violence, or even the actual root cause.
New statistics from the American Journal of Public Health confirm the scale of rape in Congo; it estimates 1,152 women and girls (aged 15-49) are raped each day, with some 48 women raped hourly. These statistics brought the Congolese women's plight to the national and international media, and will hopefully increase donations to hospitals that treat rape-related injuries, such as the Panzi Foundation. Still, these statistics paint a depressing picture and fail to provide a solution. Further, they inadvertently create the idea that rape is a cultural problem, since the study also highlights a high rate of “intimate partner sexual violence” (IPSV) in Congo.
It is important not to let this tragedy be reduced to statistics or let these findings be used to describe Congo's history of sexual violence as an inherent cultural problem. Instead of simply citing the numbers, there should be a renewed focus on stopping the perpetuation and acceptance of sexual violence.
The root cause of the rape epidemic is a deadly war that began in 1996 and claimed nearly 6 million lives, making it the deadliest war since World War II. The ongoing conflict is fueled by battles over precious minerals in the east. The Journal concluded that the conflict is one of the biggest determinants of sexual violence in Congo. With no formal justice system, militias continue to use rape as a weapon and a means of control. As a result, I think those living in eastern Congo are desensitized to rape, explaining the high rates of IPSV and countering the notion that rape is a cultural norm.
While these statistics are important in representing the first accurate reports on rape in Congo, will it actually mobilize the international community to take action? The UN mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo not only failed to prevent mass rapes from taking place, but was even implicated in raping civilians. In 2009, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visited eastern Congo to highlight the rape epidemic in the eastern provinces and to unveil her plan to contribute $17 million to rape prevention and treatment of victims.
The American Journal of Public Health renewed awareness around the issue of sexual violence in Congo, but so far, its reports haven't translated into action. Clinton did little to follow-up on the issue, and most international aid organizations and governments continue to only treat the rape and other symptoms of the war, rather than address the root causes: control of the mineral trade; reigning impunity; a lack of government oversight; the involvement of other countries in the region; and an uncontrollable national army.
Now that we know four women are raped every five minutes in Congo, what are we going to do about it? The prevalence of rape in Congo is a result of many factors, but the country's lack of accountability allows it to be used as a weapon and to exert sexual violence against women. The women of eastern Congo are survivors who continue to fight for their right to safety in their own communities; now the international community must fight for them and devote the resources to ending the mineral trade conflict, laying the groundwork for eradicating impunity.
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