In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 'rape is just the tip of the iceberg'

A woman standing in front of the window of a room where some thirty soldiers and a few policemen attend a campaign against sexual violence led by the UNHCR at the cultural center of Buburu, northwestern DR Congo. The Democratic Repubolic of Congo government signed an accord with the UN in April 2013 to step up the fight against sexual abuse by armed groups and soldiers, which remains widespread mainly in the east, where a plethora of armed groups are still active.
Credit: AFP

BOSTON — “They asked me to come talk about violence against women in Congo,” began Maman Jeanne Kasongo, founder and president of the Kinasha-based Shalupe Foundation. 

Wearing a traditional Congolese dress in striking orange and yellow hues on Friday, she stood at the conference podium for a long, silent moment before continuing. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know where to start. I don’t know what to say.”

But Kasongo did know what to say, and what came next unlocked new dimensions in the discourse surrounding rape in Democratic Republic of Congo—also known as the rape capital of the world. Kasongo was addressing a conference on gender violence in the DRC, hosted by Boston University’s School of Public Health in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center. She argued that in order to eliminate rape, it is first necessary to delve into the DRC's deep history of violence.

Two panelists, Fiona Lloyd-Davies, Pulitzer Center grantee and director of the documentary Seeds of Hope, and Dr. Susan Bartels, physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, had spoken before her that morning. Both presented stirring documentaries and effective research methods for properly recording the “hidden population” of Congolese victims. But rape, Kasongo later said, is only the “tip of the iceberg” in Congo’s enduring, complicated war.

“Everybody rapes in Congo,” she said. “Rebels, army, peacekeepers—everybody—because we have impunity.

“Rebels rape and are not arrested or stopped. They are put in the army, made official. How will they not rape again?”

Still, Kasongo explained, rape is not the cause of the war, and “if we don’t talk about the cause, we will keep coming back to watch movies and documentaries and keep having conferences.”

The question remains, then, what is at the root of a rape endemic that has taken hold of almost 2,500,000 abused Congolese women—48 women raped each hour in 2011—and how do you fix it?

The country is home to the world’s largest United Nations peacekeeping mission, which intervened after years of turmoil that have been referred to as “Africa’s world war.” On the frontline, government forces supported by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe fight against rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda.

What’s at stake, exactly? Tremendous economic resources. The massive republic is the world’s largest producer of cobalt ores and also one of the greatest producers of copper and diamonds.

This is where Kasongo says the international community must look if there is hope for peace in DRC.

“The outside come in to take the minerals,” she said. “On the way to the mines, they rape and pillage.”

International pressure, she explained, has been ineffective because no one is asking the Congolese how they think the conflict can be resolved.

Public law 109-456, officially titled “A bill to promote relief, security, and democracy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” was introduced by then-Senator Barack Obama on Dec. 16, 2005. In 2006, the bill was passed by the 109th Congress and signed by then-President George W. Bush.

“When he was still senator, Obama made this law, and that is why all Congolese in the US voted for him,” Kasongo said. “And then he sat on it.”

What’s more, she added, human rights groups operating in Congolese communities have been dishonest in reporting how much they help, and in what ways.

“All of the humanitarian groups in eastern DRC are there to make money only for themselves,” she said. “Excuse me to say it, it’s why I don’t like to come to panels like this—I say from my heart.”

But Fiona Lloyd-Davies disagreed with Kasongo’s seeming absolutism.

“International pressure and diplomacy have an important role to play, and they have seen some success,” Lloyd-Davies said. “UN intervention brigade is making some progress, leading the defeat of M23 [rebel militia], and action without human rights abuses.”

The debate was further propelled by a Rwandan student seated in the audience, who argued that in order to find peace, the Congolese, Rwandans and Ugandans must “stop pointing the finger and take responsibility for our own histories.”

Questions about accountability were at the forefront of the panel discussion that followed the speakers’ presentations: Who should own this history? Who is really behind the war that continues to breed rape, and who can bring it to an end? How can we show that there are people in the West who benefit from those who act with impunity in Congo?

By the end many of these answers remained unclear, but the discussion itself could be considered a step forward. After all, for years, according to Kasongo, Congolese communities and rights groups operating outside of Congo had taken to episodes of phatic disturbance—social ruptures simply looking to create some degree of visibility.

“We know what we want for peace, but no one will ask us or listen,” she said. “We even blocked the Champs Elysees in Paris, burned a car, and no one talks.”

But the group of students, public health workers and activists sitting in the Boston University auditorium were listening on Friday, and asking how the international community could even begin to think about solutions for DRC’s rape endemic.

“It’s time to move beyond documentation,” Dr. Susan Bartels said. “The number doesn’t matter.”

Instead, Bartels said, the focus should be on effective interventions, victim recovery and community recovery, looking specifically at women and children, but also very importantly at men.

The world must begin to think of the problem less as a kind of femicide, and more as “famicide”—studying the consequent breakdown of families, and as a result, the fracturing of communities.

In treating the country’s ongoing struggle, the condition of its people and official impunity, Sekombi Katondolo, a Goma-based media activist and CEO of radio station Mutaani FM, said there are three very concrete steps.

The first, he said, is education. Everyone is responsible for educating those around them about the issues. Second, there must be fair trade between the Congolese and western societies. And finally: local business investment.

“We don’t need clothes, we don’t need shoes or for you to send money to humanitarian organizations, we don't need charity” Katondolo said. “We need you to research first, and invest in the right people.”

And while the DRC still has much to do in the way of moving forward, Katondolo reminded the audience as the four-hour conference came to a close, there has been some progress.

“A lot has been done on the side of the Congolese government—cases of rape being judged, prosecuted and imprisoned,” he said. “There is a lot to be done, but we’ve at least gone from a non-state to a failed state, if I can say it like that.”

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