The actual state of sexualized violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo

By — May 18, 2016

Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo—When the Democratic Republic of Congo was dubbed the “rape capital of the world” in 2010 by Margot Wallström, the former UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, understandably the government of DRC was not happy. Besides that, putting one country above all others when it comes to violence against women is a debatable move: So many places have horrifying records of rape and impunity for such cases. But Wallström had good reason for aiming her words at what is unambiguously a truly terrible place for women.

DRC ranked 149th out of 188 countries on the 2014 Gender Inequality Index, a measurement compiled by the UN Development Program. It’s a country in which nearly a third of men told researchers in 2012 that women “sometimes want to be raped and that when a woman is raped she may enjoy it.” Violence against women in Congo is “underpinned by widespread acceptance of patriarchal norms and perceptions that support rape, that justify and normalize rape and the everyday subordination of women,” Gary Barker, international director of Brazil-based gender-justice organization Promundo, told me in 2014.

But while, yes, the level of violence against women is unconscionable, is it getting any better at all? Has the hard work of gender equality and justice groups, the UN, and so many others made any inroads after years of hard and difficult work? Is anything improving for women in this complicated, impoverished place? 

A 12-year-old rape survivor in a town near Bukavu, in South Kivu province. (Lauren Wolfe)

These are the questions I set out to answer in a winter reporting trip to the east of the country. While there, I spoke to survivors, women’s groups, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and many others who work on the problem of violence against women and the accompanying lack of justice. I expected to hear more of what I’d heard on my last trip to DRC, two years ago: Things are bad, very bad. Impunity rules and nothing is changing. What I found, in fact, surprised me, and plunged me into a kind of Möbius strip of reporting that I’ve been trying to untangle since.

The complicated effort to count cases

It was a tempestuous morning at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, the capital of eastern South Kivu province, on the border with Rwanda. The rainy season, while coming to an end, was unleashing sudden downpours as we walked from covered walkways to open air and back. Mud stuck to boots like sludge, although many walking around the campus wore flip-flops. For now we were tucked beneath outdoor awnings as Dr. Denis Mukwege, Panzi’s much-lauded medical director, offered dozens of gathered patients—all women—a morning prayer.

The hospital—DRC’s main health center for treating women who’ve been sexually violated—is a sprawling complex with a dedicated sexualized violence wing. There, women and children lie in rows of metal hospital beds, the children accompanied by their mothers, who sleep next to them during their treatment. In one bed lay a girl, 11 years old, who was seven-and-a-half months pregnant from rape. She didn’t have breasts yet and had not even had her period ever when she was raped; unfortunately, the timing of her reproductive development was silently working against her. She didn’t understand what was happening to her body now, said Dr. Nadine Neema, known to all as Dr. Nene. When told that a child would be coming out of her soon, she cried, “Ooh, but I’m a child.” 

A few beds down from this little girl lay a tiny 3-year-old who had been raped the night before in the nearby town of Kavumu, where a mysterious series of child rapes have plagued the town for nearly three years, with unending delays on making arrests of the perpetrators. 

While the scene at Panzi is easily horrifying, the numbers may tell a more hopeful story. Between March 2014 and March 2015, only one woman, an 18-year-old, needed surgery at the hospital, according to Dr. Ellinor Ädelroth, assistant hospital manager at Panzi. Multiple children were operated on, but Ädelroth explained that adult women don’t tend to need surgery from rape if objects other than a penis were not inserted into them. In previous years, the hospital treated women who showed more severe signs of sexual torture, she explained.

“But still, journalists are saying Dr. Mukwege is operating every day,” Ädelroth said.

Dr. Nene in the pediatric rape examination room at Panzi Hospital. (Lauren Wolfe)

Last year, Panzi treated 44 percent of all rape cases in South Kivu, one of the main provinces facing unrest in the last two decades of war. Even so, the numbers have remained relatively steady for the past couple years in terms of patients treated, if not operated on. Between 2004 and 2010, the number of women treated for sexualized violence hovered between 1,900 and 2,600 a year. But in 2011, that number dropped to 1,177, according to the Panzi Foundation, which supports the mission of the hospital. The number crept up a bit to 1,338 in 2012, but then leapt up the following year to 1,772 and remained around there for the next couple years, leaving off at 1,877 survivors in 2015. 

Yet the UN Refugee Agency, which is just one of multiple UN offices and NGOs gathering numbers, told me that they “can’t make a real comparison between 2015 and 2014” because they’ve changed how they collect information on SGBV. And this is where the confusing warping of reality begins.

It’s very hard to say what the true numbers of rape are in the restive east of DRC—is reporting getting better or are the numbers lingering at about the same level because that many rapes are still being committed? 

UNHCR’s Bukavu office outlined multiple impediments to gathering numbers, including the fact that the eastern province of South Kivu alone is the size of Rwanda and Burundi combined. “Safety is compromised because of armed groups,” said Serena Ricci, a UNHCR associate field officer in sexual and gender-based violence. Ricci also pointed to the lack of actual roads in DRC, which makes reaching many areas incredibly difficult. 

“Numbers are a speculation,” said Ricci. “If you have 2,000 cases in 2015 and 1,000 in 2014, it could be due to more reporting or it could be better collection of data.”

The numbers may vary greatly depending on who you ask, but over 20 years of war, thousands and thousands—likely hundreds of thousands—of women have been sexually violated by armed groups and the Congolese army, mainly in the east. Not only that, but studies have shown that rape by civilians is at a viciously high level, with so many former soldiers returning home with little or no rehabilitation or reintegration, and taking out their trauma on their own families and neighbors.

“If you look at the country in general, I think the level of rape is very, very high,” said Irma van Dueren, the senior women protection advisor for the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). “It’s a very unsafe country for women.”

An 11-year-old girl pregnant from rape. (Lauren Wolfe)

For its part, MONUSCO only reports on cases that are 100 percent verified (although other groups, like the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), don’t investigate all the reports in the numbers they gather). So, like Ricci, Van Dueren warns: “You have to approach the figures with a bit of caution.” 

There is a lot of underreporting in general of rape in the country, and not just because many conflict areas are inaccessible. Women also don’t report because they’re afraid of revenge, according to Van Dueren. Sometimes an attack is not reported to authorities because the local community has found what it sees as a suitable solution to rape: such as giving a goat to the woman’s family or, in some cases, the rapist will marry his victim in order to alleviate the shame of the family of the woman—that’s how intense stigmatization is in the country. 

When is rape “war-related”?

While the east of DRC is still under bombardment periodically by the army and various rebel groups (right now a Ugandan group is wreaking havoc throughout North Kivu province and into South Kivu), the question of what is “war-related” in the country is an interesting one. After 20 years of extraordinary violence, “war” itself is a complex concept. A dysfunctional, corrupt country torn apart by decades of conflict (after the additional trauma of colonialism) tends toward violence, with weakened justice systems and protection mechanisms. Women become deeply vulnerable in such an environment.

In South Kivu province, which has seen heavy fighting as recently as March. (Lauren Wolfe)

The Panzi Foundation said it didn’t have information about the perpetrators of attacks—whether they were military or civilian men. But who is perpetrating these crimes matters. If army rapes are going down, then the government/UN/NGOs may finally be doing something right in terms of training commanders to control their troops. If rebel militia rapes are decreasing then actions to stop fighting in the east may be helping. If civilian rapes are on the rise, making up the difference—then that’s a whole new nightmare brewing in itself, and may explain the jump in cases at Panzi.

A 2013 study commissioned by the World Bank found that “a significant proportion of former combatants showed higher than normal signs of aggression.” A remarkable 44 percent of decommissioned fighters said they felt a feeling of satisfaction when harming others, and 35 percent said they still felt the urge to fight.

But figuring out who is committing which crimes—and which perpetrators are being reported—is far from simple.

“One of the reasons this is so complicated is that for a long time ‘civilian’ rape wasn’t even viewed as rape,” said Jocelyn Kelly, director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Women in War program. She said this prompted much advocacy and awareness-raising to be targeted toward women who were being abused by soldiers. It also led to a reduction in reporting of sexual abuse by husbands or neighbors. “I think that this is beginning to change slowly,” Kelly said, “so there may be more reports of rape by civilians, but it would be difficult to know if this were a real trend or an artifact of reporting.”

Congolese men and women I’ve spoken to love to say they never had a word for rape in their languages until Rwandans flooded into their country after the 1994 genocide, bringing the crime with them. That, however, does not mean that the act did not exist. Consider the United States’ long-held attitude that spousal rape was not a crime. In fact, it took until 1979 for the first conviction to come about in such a case. Yet (does it need to be said?) spousal rape in the U.S. did not begin in 1979.

A 5-year-old survivor awaits a hospital examination. It's unclear whether the men who raped her were soldiers. (Lauren Wolfe)

While many in DRC still look at military forces as the main perpetrators of sexualized violence, a UNFPA representative in eastern Congo told me in 2014 that there had been a drastic increase in civilian rape since 2011: More than 77 percent of all the attacks registered by UNFPA in 2013 were perpetrated by civilians. And before that, a 2010 Oxfam study found that civilian rape in Congo had increased 17-fold between 2004 and 2008. 

Incremental change

The Western media’s insistence that DRC is still the worst country in the world in terms of rape irks some local activists, who, while acknowledging that there is certainly still a long way to go, say it’s time to recognize progress, to accept that their hard work is making a difference.

“When people say there is no change, it means the work that we’ve done has accomplished nothing,” said Julienne Lusenge, head of Female Solidarity for Integrated Peace and Development (SOFEPADI), a coalition of Congolese women’s rights groups. “I really think the efforts are working.” 

She pointed to a new program in Beni, in North Kivu, that keeps various medical centers and organizations from duplicating records on a single patient. When a woman comes to her office, Lusenge said, they create a record that is then sent to the local hospital. After the hospital provides the patient medical services, that record returns with her to SOFEPADI, which then provides survivors with psychological and legal assistance. Attributing the improvements to the hard work of grassroots groups, Lusenge admits the work is slow going, and underfunded. But she can point to concrete examples of things getting better. In Bunia in northern Orientale province, where SOFEPADI also operates, one woman recently had her own husband arrested because he raped his own daughter, she explained. The man has now been sentenced to 15 years and is currently in jail. “That was unimaginable in the past,” Lusenge said.

The group is also seeing more cooperation from traditional community leaders, who are now willing to send people to investigate when they hear about a case of sexualized violence. Lusenge pointed to an example in which a traditional chief helped get a soldier who’d perpetrated rape arrested.

“Yes, there are still armed groups that are still keeping women as sexual slaves and committing all sorts of atrocities,” she said. “But on the other hand, we’re seeing a lot of efforts by community members to help and protect survivors of sexualized violence.” People also now know where to seek services, Lusenge said. Sixty-two percent of survivors that come to her organization for help now come within 72 hours “because they know they can be saved” from HIV and pregnancy as well as other sexually transmitted diseases, she said.

Morning prayers at Panzi. (Lauren Wolfe)

Even men, husbands, are now accompanying their wives to court—something unheard of in the past. “When things like this would happen in your family—no!” she said. “They don’t want to talk about it. If you were raped you were blamed: ‘How did you manage to be raped?’”

Still, the struggle for justice with regard to rape cases is unending. There are parallel justice systems in DRC: civilian and military. All the experts I spoke to acknowledged advances made by the military justice system. On the flip side, one expert called the civilian justice system “entirely nonfunctional” when it comes to prosecuting rape. Regardless, both structures face huge challenges.

“You can see at Panzi Hospital that medical tests confirm there was rape,” said Raphael Wakenge, coordinator for a Bukavu-based nonprofit called the Congolese Initiative for Justice and Peace. “Medically, you can have evidence, socially, you have met the victims, but on the justice level they will ask you for more evidence to prove the rape occurred. Because there are some alleged perpetrators who are released after the prosecutor investigates—because there is ‘no evidence.’” And corruption is everywhere. The former prosecutor in Kavumu, the town where the little girls are being raped for a third year in a row, was known as “Mr. $100”—because that’s how much it took to be released from his custody. I’ve been told stories of rape suspects arrested who “escaped” on the way to prison; others who “disappeared” from jail. Then there are the twin problems of a lack of resources and a lack of training of medical and legal professionals: Costly DNA tests are unavailable in the country, and evidence is sometimes washed away at local clinics in an effort to “clean” victims. Freddy Mukendi, a top military magistrate who tried the Minova rape case in which at least 76 women were violated in November 2012, told me in an interview that he was unable to convict 37 of 39 men charged due to a lack of good evidence.

At the same time, “it’s not like it was 20 years ago,” said SOFEPADI’s Lusenge. “Police officers, army soldiers—our men are being arrested. That didn’t happen in the past. And even women are seeking justice against their own husbands for perpetration. That’s new.”

What’s also new is a measurable decline in rape cases perpetrated by government troops, according to MONUSCO. Van Dueren said that in 2013, government forces perpetrated 38 percent of cases reported by the peacekeeping mission (while the rest were by other armed groups) but in 2015, that figure dropped to 34 percent. Van Dueren attributed that to the work MONUSCO and others are doing to push for justice—for more arrests, convictions, and longer sentences for army perpetrators. If commanders stop condoning rape in their ranks (or even stop ordering it), you’re going to see a reduction in violence. She said that MONUSCO has seen fewer cases overall reported to “all the different systems we have,” but that she and others still “looking for an explanation” for this drop. 

Why numbers don’t matter in the end

It took a few hours for Dr. Mukwege to find time to sit down for an interview when I was at Panzi on that muddy day, but when we finally settled at a plastic-covered table, he was ready to answer questions. Minus one.

“Why are journalists so obsessed with these numbers?” he wanted to know when I asked him if he thinks cases of rape are going up or down.

Dr. Denis Mukwege, medical director at Panzi Hospital. (Lauren Wolfe)

He’s not the only one irritated by this question. While it helps to have a grasp of the scope of the problem, the preoccupation with numbers has some real-world negative consequences, according to SOFEPADI’S Lusenge. International NGOs, she explained, require high numbers to secure funding, and that when cases of rape go down the groups come to her wondering why—“as if we should always produce high figures and numbers.” Instead, she said emphatically, “Our objective is to have no cases of sexualized violence.”

Mukwege doesn’t have energy to talk about increases or decreases. After years and years of treating survivors, he’s fed up with the global obsession with a body count. “We can’t know if the numbers of cases are going up or down,” he made clear. And then he quickly steered our conversation toward a more personal, and exasperated, realm. He despaired at the world’s lack of interest in the desperate state of violence in his country—no matter the numbers.

“I have an impression, seeing the way Congolese women and children are treated now, I wonder if we have the same humanity,” he said of his colleagues versus the rest of the world. “I think if it were happening somewhere else [the international community] should have found a solution.”

I asked him if he feels like everyone has forgotten this place. His response was nonverbal; just an affirmative flip of his hands in the air.

Over the past few years, Mukwege’s hospital has been under increasing pressure from the government, which has spoken out repeatedly about Panzi’s “politicized” mission; it even froze the hospital’s assets at the end of 2014, claiming Panzi had not paid an enormous tax bill. Like so many women’s rights activists in Congo I’ve spoken to, Mukwege has said that peace in his country must be the priority, something the government seems to take as a kind of personal affront; Kinshasa (a good 900 miles away from Bukavu as the crow flies—above nearly no roads) tends to take umbrage at assertions it isn’t doing enough to stop the war. Critics point to either a lack of ability or political will on behalf of the government to bring about an end to the fighting.

You can try to prevent rape, you can work to repair the damage, but peace is the only true thing that can stop the widespread destruction of women’s bodies, activists say. Yet despite incremental wins in the two-decade war, such as the 2013 defeat of the rebel group M23, peace remains elusive. And therefore so does stopping rape, a free and dangerously effective weapon. This is why the idea of measuring numbers of rape cases can feel pointless to people on the front lines, like Mukwege. It’s not about the numbers after all these years, to him; it’s about what we do in the face of such depraved violence—whether that encompasses 1,000 cases or just one.

“I believe that we are all human and we should react,” he said. “Maybe I am wrong, but if we can’t react when someone is suffering, we have a problem.”