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November-December 2010
Vol. 35, No. 6

DR Congo: Violence against women in war

According to UN estimates, between July 30 and August 4, 2010 over 300 men, women and children were sexually assaulted in 13 villages in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). reports that the attacks, "which took place mostly after dark in the Walikale region, were carried out … by a 'coalition' of around 200 members of three armed groups – the Maï Maï Cheka, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and elements close to Col. Emmanuel Nsengiyumva, an army deserter who has also in the past been involved with the rebel National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) group."

Margot Wallström, UN special representative on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict, on September 27, repeated a call for the prosecution of leaders of the rebel groups. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay acknowledged the failure of the Congolese army and the UN peacekeeping force operating in the DRC to prevent the attacks, and announced on September 24 that a panel of experts would hold hearings in the DRC in the coming weeks with survivors of sexual violence.

In late September, Justine Masika Bihamba, the 2009 Pax Christi International Peace Prize laureate and founder of the Synergy of Women for the Victims of Sexual Violence, a coalition in the DRC of 35 women's organizations, visited Washington, D.C. and New York to address the root causes of sexual violence in conflict. She was accompanied by Donatella Rostagno from the European Network for Central Africa (EurAc), 50 European non-governmental organizations focusing on peace, democracy and development in the DRC, Burundi and Rwanda.

The Synergy of Women for the Victims of Sexual Violence in Conflict has supported women victims of violence by offering medical assistance, psycho-social support, support in the socio-economic reinsertion, legal assistance and the sensitization of the communities. The Synergy also educates women about international and national human rights legal standards to promote awareness of their own rights.

In their meetings with decision-makers and others in Washington, D.C. and New York, Justine and Donatella described the context in the eastern part of the DRC and especially in the North Kivu as a very dark one. They said that the presence of foreign and Congolese rebel groups has a devastating impact on the population – that these groups are responsible for unrelenting attacks against the population, massacres, kidnapping and rape. Members of the Congolese army (FARDC) also commit these acts, representing an enormous threat for the population.

The Congolese army, into which have been integrated successive waves of rebel groups, is neither unified nor disciplined. Many armed groups (whether or not they have been integrated into the national army) only survive because they have taken possession of a mine and are reluctant to relinquish their trophy. Furthermore, the less well organized is the army, the greater the opportunities that exist for high ranking officers in the army to embezzle large sums of money.

Solutions thus far tried by the DRC government have been mainly military and have never had as a main objective the protection of the population. Military operations such as Umoja Wetu, Kimia I and II, Amani Leo and Rwenzori have all had devastating consequences, including many displaced people, rapes, killings and the pillaging of many villages.

Justine and Donatella noted in addition a disturbing lack of involvement of women in the peace process, mediation and negotiations, or refugee returns; the total impunity for acts of sexual violence committed by the armed militias and by high ranking members of the Congolese army; the complete failure to protect civilian populations during military operations; and the profitability of ongoing instability and insecurity in the Kivus for many major actors involved in the region, including multinationals, the governments of DRC and of Rwanda, the U.S. and EU member states.

They made several clear recommendations for an effective response to the horrific violence against women. First, they said, restore peace in the eastern DRC and in the whole region. Give attention to political developments in Kinshasa and in the other provinces as well as in eastern DRC. The DRC will remain fragile until the state is strengthened so that it has the power to reinforce constitutionalism and good governance. Promote dialogue, based on mutual respect and partnership, between the international community and the government of the DRC toward genuine development and a resolution of the conflict. Help the government of the DRC to create a truly unified, effective and disciplined army which is the backbone of lasting security in eastern Congo. Put pressure on the government of Rwanda to open its democratic space and to allow for negotiations to find a political solution to the FDLR problem. Build a coherent, coordinated multilateral response to the challenge of the DRC. In spite of the huge budget spent on the Congo peace process the results are still well below expectations. End impunity. Support the creation of an international tribunal based in the DRC with a system of mixed chambers where international and Congolese judges work side by side on cases of past violations of human rights, sharing expertise and diminishing the danger of corruption. The presence of the international tribunal in DRC would ensure that it would be close to the victims and less open to the corruption of evidence.

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