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SRHR Situation Report: An Epidemic of Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo

August 2, 2009
This month’s SRHR Sit Report focuses on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where rape and sexual assault have become the tactic of choice for terrorizing and intimidating women and communities, and the conditions of the conflict have further degraded the status of sexual and reproductive health services.
A 12 year old girl, displaced by conflict, holds her baby sister. Image care of Reuters photographer Finbarr O'Reilly

A 12 year old girl, displaced by conflict, holds her baby sister. Image care of Reuters photographer Finbarr O'Reilly

The war that has raged in eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo since the late nineties has a devastating effect for women– the use of rape and sexual assault as a weapon of war by troops on all sides– and no one is talking about it.  In the decade-long conflict, more than 5 million people have been killed in a country with a population of about 66 million, and tens of thousands of women have been victims of brutal sexual assault and then of stigmatization by their communities.  This Guardian report details the complex roots of the conflict, and its relationship with the Rwandan genocide.

An epidemic of sexual violence

The sexual violence and use of rape in Eastern DR Congo is being called the worst in the world, and the brutal attacks on women have become so commmon that they have become normalized in the mind of many Congolese.  Soldiers from militias as well as government troops are guilty, and even government funcitonaries and community figures have been reportely using sexual violence as a means of intimidation.

A woman undergoing surgery for fistula

A woman undergoing surgery for fistula. Image care of endrevestvik's flickr stream

The violence is often extremely vicious.  It is common for women to be raped with rifles, sticks and shards of broken glass.  Families are forced to watch mothers and daughters violated and men have been forced to rape their female family members.  Many women have developed tears in the lining of their vaginas, called fistula, which cause incontinence of urine or feces.  Women suffering from fistula are often ostracized from their communities or hidden away alone because of the stench.  Doctors have begun classifying the vaginal destruction caused by “exceptionally violent gang rape” as a crime of war.

In addition, the war has created a huge wave of internally displaced persons running from conflict areas or living in refugee camps (56,000 in the last two weeks alone).  Women who have fled conflict and now living in UN camps with poor conditions for sexual and reproductive health.   The UNFPA has been providing some women with sanitary napkins and clean birth kits, but overall the situation is not good.

Many women have become pregnant as a result of rape and none of the options are particularly good.  Unsafe abortion leads to maternal mortality, pregnancy and birth services are unavailable or clinics lack clean supplies.

A makeshift refugee camp in eastern Congo.  Image care of Reuters photographer Finbarr O'Reilly

A makeshift refugee camp in eastern Congo. Image care of Reuters photographer Finbarr O'Reilly

There are a number of great independent sources of information and groups working to raise awareness.  A new documentary called The Greatest Silence chronicles the effects of the rape and mutilation of Congolese women. South Kivu Women’s Media Association (AFEM) has raised awareness within communities in Eastern DR Congo and around the world.  By letting women tell their stories on the air, they have broken the silence and begun the healing process for many women.  In fact, it was a Women’s eNews panel featuring AFEM founder Chouchou Namegabe that brought the conflict to my attention.  The Boston Globe had a gorgeous photo essay on the DR Congo.

Conflict minerals

Much like the conflict in Sierra Leone was fueled by so-called “blood diamonds,” the war in the DR Congo is largely driven by conflicts over resources.  Charcoal, gold and minerals like Coltan, which is necessary for the manufacture of cell phones, have all been the root of militia actions.  Large international corporations (like the UK’s Amalgamated Metal Corporation) quietly draw out the resources and deal with militias while murky supply chains protect them from scrutiny.  Global Witness just released a much-heralded report on the “militarisation of mining” called Faced with a Gun, What Can you Do? which is available for download here.  It traces the various militias involved in the conflict, and the breakdown of the rule of law in Eastern Congo.  According to the BBC, “regional analysts say the international demand for coltan is one of the driving forces behind the war in the DRC, and the presence of rival militias in the country.”

Media response

With one of the biggest humanitarian crises in recent history unfolding in the DR Congo, why don’t we hear about this more often?  Why aren’t we decrying the rampant use of sexual violence as a weapon of war?  This blog focuses on reporting of the war in DR Congo and investigates why it has received so little play in international media.  Recently, international attention turned more toward the DR Congo.  Ban Ki Moon has focused on the crisis recently and after a visit with survivors said that he was “humbled, saddened and shocked” by the level of violence.  The World Council of Churches has released a position calling on the church to become the conscience of the world in speaking up for Congo’s women.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is planning a trip to the DRC in the coming weeks, and she is expected to condemn the sexual violence, and Ben Afleck and Mick Jagger have created a short film to raise awareness and funds for the UNHCR’s work in DRC.

What can we do?

We don’t want our cell phones to fuel a war that destroys the lives of so many women, but lack of information about the supply chain of minerals coming out of the DR Congo makes it dificult to stop it.  As The Enough Project has pointed out, this is a tremendous opportunity for activism.  By making people aware of the the violence against women and the ongoing conflict in the DR Congo, and our part in it, we can start to build the international attention necessary to force mineral companies to stop fueling this war.

Learn more about the humanitarian aspects of the conflict from the International Rescue Committee.  Join the Raise Hope for Congo project as it builds a movement against conflict minerals.  Email president Obama and ask him to appoint a special envoy to the Great Lakes Region.  Donate to the Fistula Foundation which directly assists in restoring health and dignity to women suffering from fistula, including supporting the pioneering Panzi Clinic for traumatic fistula in the DR Congo.

Brook Elliott-Buettner is a freelance human rights policy researcher and writer living in New York. More information and work is available at

  1. Myrthe permalink
    August 3, 2009 10:13 am

    Recently, Global Voices published an article about the use of sexual violence in the conflict in the DRC and the resulting increase of cases of fistula:

    • brookelliottbuettner permalink
      August 3, 2009 11:43 am

      Thank you for the link. I hope that there will be even more focus on the issue as time goes on…

  2. brookelliottbuettner permalink
    August 7, 2009 3:36 pm

    It’s not just women:


  1. An epidemic of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo « Brook Elliott-Buettner, MSW, MPA

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