In Eastern Congo, rape can be an act of war or revenge, or a response to extreme poverty, ignorance and fear.
A new study published by the American Journal of Public Health indicates that nearly 2 million women in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been raped. Many rapes are a part of military operations, designed to terrorize and control the population. Rates of domestic rape and rape by civilians, however, appear to be growing rapidly in the DRC.
This child was born a week and a half ago, almost nine months after his 14-year-old mother was raped. When asked why the soldier living in her house raped her, Amina shook her head and said she had no idea.
Dr. Guylain Mvuama, who heads the worn hospital where Amina had her baby said the main reason rural Congolese women are such frequent victims of rape is simple. It is part of the war.
Mvuama said armed groups raid and loot villages, raping women, children and sometimes babies or men to control the people though terror. The doctor says deep in the bush, what better way is there to keep everyone subdued, than to rape every man’s mother, sister or wife?
But in the regular Congolese Army, rape is considered a crime, with the first-ever high-ranking officer sentenced to 20 years in jail in February. The following month, 11 other officers were convicted, all given at least the maximum sentence of 20 years for rape. Activists and army officers say the prosecutions appear to have reduced the incidents of rape considerably, but rape is still common.
Congolese Army Colonel Seraphin Mirindi is formerly an officer in one of the country’s many armed militias that now are attempting to merge into the regular army as per a 2008 power-sharing agreement. Mirindi said soldiers still rape as a direct result of extreme poverty. Between low pay, and corruption among commanders, soldiers take home between $17 and $55 a month.
About 30 percent of soldiers desert their posts, he said, and since they receive hardy any salaries, they also are immune from punishment when they leave. Most deserters, he said, also take their gun with them when they go.
Mirindi said with almost no money, soldiers and deserters are tempted to rape because they are isolated deep in the forest, and cannot afford wives or prostitutes. He works with international organizations like Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and the Red Cross to educate soldiers about the dangers of rape for them and the victims. And while he said education is effective, he thinks higher salaries would be more useful in reducing the number of rapes.
Attorney and victim’s rights activist Gilbert Kasereka said that while soldiers do rape because they are isolated, poor or as part of an attack, many rapes also occur in Congo for more unusual reasons. With the absence of regular, informed medical care, many people believe they can gain power or good health by raping the young.
Kasereka said some people believe military prowess can be derived from raping a teenager or someone who is an ethnic minority, like Congolese Pygmies. Others believe the rape of a baby will cure AIDs.
Rape in Congo also is increasingly common at home. Last year, a study commissioned by Oxfam showed that incidents of domestic rape grew 17-fold between 2004 and 2008. In the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health, researchers recommended that future programs against sexual violence in Congo focus on “abuse within families,” in addition to ending impunity for rapists and improving security in the countryside.
But for some activists, no programs will be completely effective without ending the conflict for good. They say as long as much of Eastern Congo continues to be overrun with militias fighting each other and the government, and battling for control of what is believed to be $24 trillion worth of mineral wealth under the ground, sexual violence will continue to be a fact of life.
The president of the civil society in the eastern province of North Kivu, Jason Luneno Maene, said neither the government, nor NGOs can provide educational anti-rape programs to rebel militias who live beyond the reach of Congolese law. Even in government-controlled areas, he said, rapists often are caught and then released a few days later.
But Luneno said the recent convictions of Congolese Army soldiers and officers could affect the rest of society. If the army stops raping, he said, civilians may follow their lead.
In a hospital in Goma, 50-year-old Mawazo, a rape victim and mother of 10, said that national laws have no impact in her village.
Mawazo says rebel soldiers live near her village, and they raped her while she was searching for food for her youngest children. She says she is safe inside the hospital in the city, but she can never go home. If they catch her again in the forest alone, she says, she will be raped again, and this time she may not survive.