In Congo, Sexual Assault Spreads From Army To Civilians

Armed conflict among Congolese, Rwandan, and Ugandan militias has spawned an epidemic of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and perhaps most disturbingly, civilians too have begun to assault one another at higher and higher rates.

Back in 2006, Time called the conflict between the Congolese army and rebels allied with various foreign regimes "the deadliest war in the world," causing the most deaths since World War II. The fighting continues, as does sexual violence, used by rebel groups, as Congolese activist Annie Rashidi-Mulumba puts it in The Daily Beast, "to control through terror." And yet these tactics are also spreading to the civilian population — the Guardian cites a study showing that while only 1% of rapes in Congo were committed by civilians in 2004, that number rose to 38% by 2008. And rapists seem to be copying the militias' tactics — the Guardian's Amy Fallon writes that "about 56% of sexual assaults were committed by armed men in homes in the presence of the victim's families, including their children." In 2009, she reports, more than 9,000 people were raped in the DRC.

Congo appears to be witnessing the birth of a particularly terrifying kind of rape culture. Says humanitarian researcher Susan Bartels, "Sexual violence has become more normal in civilian life. The scale of rape over Congo's years of war has made this crime seem more acceptable." What's happening in Congo is a horrific reminder that rape isn't just some ever-present evil like bad weather, that women have to learn to avoid. It's a tool of oppression used against women, children, and men as well, and it becomes more common when it goes unpunished.

So what's the solution? Nicholas Kristof has argued persuasively for more international attention on Congo, but international pressure isn't the whole story. Fallon writes that studies show "women become more vulnerable" even when UN forces enter a region. And Rashidi-Mulumba argues that the Congolese themselves need to step up to end the violence. She writes,

Given the history of the Congo [...] it seems quite ironic to simply rely on political or foreign aid to end this conflict without calling on the Congolese vox populi to express its frustration and become part of the solution. When we Congolese men and women stand our ground and say "enough is enough," then something might finally be done to end the sexual massacre of women and babies in our country.

It's a difficult question — how to give the victims of sexual violence in Congo the help they need without perpetuating the cycle of outside intervention and imperialism that helped the country get into this state in the first place. Probably Rashidi-Mulumba is right that the most effective charge against rape would be one led by Congolese citizens themselves, who have, she says, only two desires: "First, to see the end of this everlasting conflict, and second, to ensure that this nightmare never happens again."

A Shocking Letter From The Congo [Daily Beast]
Congo Report Shows Rape Is Widespread [Guardian]

Related: Orphaned, Raped And Ignored [NYT]