Although the bloody conflict that devastated the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) formally came to an end over a decade ago, the nation continues to be plagued by serious outbreaks of fighting and interethnic tensions.
Violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) frequently occur across the country; with rape and other forms of sexual violence among the most destructive of acts bringing suffering to the civilian population.
The use of sexual violence as a weapon in the DRC and other conflict-affected areas is of grave concern to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), an organisation whose mandate is to provide impartial humanitarian protection and assistance to people affected by armed conflict. While sexual violence in warfare continues to be an almost “silent crime” that too frequently goes unnoticed, globally the ICRC is stepping up its efforts to bring it out of the shadows by putting in place effective prevention strategies and improve multidisciplinary responses to assist victims.
Hidden suffering, far-reaching consequences
Used as a strategic tactic in various conflicts throughout history, sexual violence is perpetrated indiscriminately against women, men, girls and boys. It is intended to undermine opposition groups and create a climate of fear and compliance among entire populations.
During the DRC’s decade-long war, the systematic use of rape as a weapon was nothing short of horrific. Today, despite the decrease in hostilities, the ready availability of weapons and ongoing instability have perpetuated an environment where sexual violence remains a serious problem. The consequences of this chronic violence at both an individual and community level are immense.
For the victim, it can leave deep physical, psychological and psychosocial scars. Physical harm can include injury and pain, unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and the risk of infertility. Psychological trauma can include, but is not limited to, distress, guilt, depression and isolation. The problem is further exacerbated due to many victims not reporting attacks because of taboo, feelings of shame or fear of retaliation. A victim recently told the ICRC: ‘You can’t imagine what it’s like to stand in front of someone and say you’ve been raped. I thought everyone knew what had happened so I tried to hide’.
In addition to physical and emotional trauma, survivors of sexual violence in the DRC often experience stigmatisation and rejection by their own families and communities. In some areas in eastern DRC, the perception exists that a victim of sexual violence can bring bad luck to their entire community. When victims are ostracised, the physical and emotional consequences are compounded by the loss of socio-economic stability and opportunity. On a community level, it creates a climate of fear and destroys social fabric. Families of victims vicariously experience the trauma, particularly if they witnessed an attack.
Many victims suffer in silence, without accessing necessary medical and psychological support and care. Even when they are willing to speak out and seek support, considerable material obstacles may hinder the path to accessing medical care. The protracted nature of the violence in the DRC has resulted in a lack of public health services and emergency care in an already under-resourced and limited system.
Sexual violence is not an inevitable aspect of armed conflict. It is criminal and unlawful behaviour that is prohibited under IHL in both international and non‑international armed conflict. Rape and other forms of sexual violence, when committed during and in connection with an armed conflict, constitute a war crime and must be prosecuted as such. Unfortunately although these laws exist, in various conflict contexts they are not adhered to by all parties.
What needs to be done?
The ICRC identifies a number of measures that need to take place in order to prevent sexual violence and to address the needs of victims. Firstly, the legal frameworks that prohibit sexual violence in armed conflict (such as IHL, human rights law and international criminal laws) must be implemented and respected at both the national and international level. Strong domestic legal and administrative frameworks that prohibit and criminalise sexual violence must be adhered to. State institutions (such as militaries and police) must support these laws through proper staffing, training and the use of appropriate disciplinary and criminal sanctions that prevent and punish sexual violence.
Secondly, survivors must have access to dignified, culturally sensitive and confidential support. The ICRC works with local organisations in the DRC to provide psychosocial care and referral to medical facilities, which support victims of violence throughout the process of recovery. Our aim is to set up self‑sufficient support centres by training local men and women from the community. These individuals respect and apply the principles of integrity, impartiality and neutrality in their efforts to reduce the long‑term impact of sexual violence on victims.
Awareness campaigns and activities are also important in identifying the consequences of sexual violence, reducing stigmatisation of victims and informing communities about the medical and psychosocial services available. In 2015, 80,000 community members in the DRC learnt about services available for victims and the necessity of receiving medical attention within 72 hours of being raped.
As an institutional priority for the ICRC, we are working to enhance our response to sexual violence, not only in the DRC but in contexts all over the world. The fight against sexual violence in armed conflict requires a multidisciplinary effort, bringing together expertise from areas such as health, political science, gender studies, history, law and military ethics. We are committed to addressing the causes and effects of wartime sexual violence, providing support to victims and ensuring that it never becomes the norm.
This article is part of a series by the International Committee of the Red Cross, “Lasting wars, forgotten victims,” highlighting the serious and often-overlooked humanitarian consequences of protracted armed conflicts and other situations of violence. It can be republished under a Creative Commons License.