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Sexual and Gender-based Violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Opportunities for Progress as M23 Disarms?

Congolese women sing for Belgium's King Albert II and Queen Paola visiting the King Baudouin hospital

Years of war in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have brought a host of tragedies, large and small. Amongst the greatest tragedies is undoubtedly that the DRC has come to be known as the “rape capital of the world.” At some points in the conflict, an estimated 48 women were raped every hour, by militiamen but also by notoriously undisciplined Congolese soldiers. Rampant sexual and gender-based violence has long been a driver of the country’s displacement crisis. An estimated 2.7 million Congolese are displaced within their own country, and one million were uprooted last year alone. In a cruel irony, risk of sexual and gender-based violence is not only a driver of displacement but one of its consequences:  Internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are separated from their families and communities often face increased risk of violent attacks, including rape.

The recent defeat of the M23 rebel group has raised cautious hopes of peace and an end to the systematic sexual and gender-based violence that has so brutally characterized the war in the DRC. A recent event at the Brookings Institution addressed the challenge of preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence in conflict contexts, including in the DRC. On October 21, the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement and IMA World Health hosted Dr. Denis Mukwege, the renowned Congolese physician and human rights advocate who founded the Panzi Hospital, an institution dedicated to assisting the survivors of rape. Since establishing the Panzi Hospital in South Kivu in 1998, Dr. Mukwege and his colleagues have performed more than 30,000 surgeries to address complications stemming from rape. Dr. Mukwege’s tireless efforts to speak out against rape in the DRC have earned him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination, but also forced him to flee his own home after an assassination attempt. Despite the danger, Dr. Mukwege returned to the eastern Congo to continue his work, on the urging of the women he has assisted.

In his speech at Brookings, Dr. Mukwege stressed that the roots of wartime rape lie in the gender inequalities that characterize societies not only in Africa but around the world; conflict merely amplifies these pre-existing inequalities. Education is needed to eradicate these inequalities and to increase understanding of the nature of rape itself as a crime. Rape is not, Dr. Mukwege emphasized, a sexual relationship. It is an effect to negate another human being and destroy their equality. This is a crime that echoes across generations, and creates a range of direct and indirect victims whose needs and rights are often forgotten, but must be addressed. These indirect victims include families who see their loved ones being raped, children born of rape, and whole communities in which the social fabric is destroyed because of systematic rape. Advocating a holistic socio-economic approach that enables the reintegration of survivors into society and the transformation of victims into community leaders, Dr. Mukwege underlined the need for psychological support for victims to restore their “strength so that they can fight for their rights.”

The struggle to prevent and respond to sexual and gender based violence in the DRC, across the African continent and around the world depends in large part on the question of impunity. Dr. Mukwege underlined the critical role of the rule of law in deterring violence against women. “In the DRC,” Dr. Mukwege said, “we have probably one of the best laws in the world that was written in 2006 to protect women. But how many women know about this law? How many men know about this law? Actually, it’s not only a question of them knowing it, but the application.”

Crucially, the agreement negotiated in Uganda on the disarmament of M23 states that the rebel leaders will be held accountable in court for the major violations for which they are responsible. In a break from the past, there is to be no amnesty. Efforts to ensure accountability must tackle the interlinked questions of responsibility for sexual and gender-based violence and the country’s displacement crisis. Ratifying the African Union Convention on the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (Kampala Convention), an important new human rights treaty, would be an important step in this direction. The DRC is currently a signatory to the Convention, which explicitly prohibits and requires states to prevent sexual and gender-based violence against IDPs. The Convention also calls on states to “take special measures to protect and provide for the reproductive and sexual health of internally displaced women as well as appropriate psycho-social support for victims of sexual and other related abuses.” Building on the momentum created by the defeat of M23, the government of the DRC should ratify the Kampala Convention and develop a concerted plan to implement the agreement, particularly those provisions that seek to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence. At the same time, capacity to implement the domestic laws Dr. Mukwege highlighted must be strengthened.

The scourge of sexual and gender based violence in the DRC will not disappear with the defeat of M23—rapes and other attacks continue to be perpetrated by members of other militias, Congolese soldiers and in domestic contexts. Nonetheless, the dismantling of M23 must be capitalized on as an opportunity to redouble the fight against sexual violence in conflict.