By Parul Agarwal
One of the most vicious and prominent features of the Congolese conflict is the systemized military rape committed against the women of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), particularly in the eastern regions. Consequently, the DRC has been dubbed the “rape capital of the world.” Four years after gaining this infamous title, and less than two weeks ago, the verdict for the DRC’s largest trial on sexual violence was announced. While this trial had the potential to set a groundbreaking precedent for its population, the results were far from inspiring and ultimately a large step-back for ending this form of violence in the DRC.
The Minova trial, held this year in early March, accused 39 soldiers from the M23 rebel group of raping at least 135 women and girls ranging from the age of 2 to 80. The violence occurred during a 10 day attack on the people of Minova in 2012. The magnitude, and even the existence, of this trial was historical for country that requires a woman to obtain her husband’s permission before bringing a case to court. Yet, despite overwhelming evidence and numerous testimonies, only 2 soldiers were convicted of rape.
The outcome of this case raises an important question. In a country where 46 women are being raped every hour, what do the lackluster results of a publicized trial signal to both victims and perpetrators?
To address the question, it is necessary to first understand the current socio-political climate in the DRC. There are two significant features. The first is that this conflict involves many different militia groups fighting each other, rather than one against one. As such, women and girls of all ethnic groups become potential targets. The second is that sheer magnitude of the sexual violence has almost normalized the act for the DRC’s population.
The first significant feature of this conflict is the narrative of political power. For many years it has been about remaining in power, not about creating a strong, accountable state. Those vying for power rely heavily on militias and local warlords. The majority of violence is done by members of smaller armies, rebel groups, and national militias, all of which pass under the international radar. Not only does conflict occur in civilian spaces, but troops are also positioned in locations such that when people have to go out for food or trade, they are at risk of rape. The existence of so many perpetrating groups creates an extremely hostile environment, especially for women and girls.
The second feature of the conflict is the magnitude and nature of the violence. Numerous popular statistics show that there are hundreds of thousands of people that have been victims of sexual violence in the DRC. The victim suffers in two ways: ﬁrst by the violent act and second by being condemned by the patriarchal community. One woman described the typical social consequences as, “Your husband will say he cannot keep a woman who has been raped by the whole battalion, and he will abandon you. When you go your parents’ house, they will ask you why you have destroyed your marriage". The physical, mental, and social damage permeates throughout the community and threatens to destroy social bonds.
Keeping these two features in mind, it becomes clear that the failure of such a publicized trial signals to the perpetrators throughout militias that they can go ahead and continue behaving as they were before. To victims, it signals that the chance for any justice is minimal to completely absent.
The question is then how can the international community, which was so disappointed in the outcome of the Minova trial, restore faith and end impunity? The DRC needs to be fixed from within. A culture of respect and value for women has to be created. However, that is of course much easier said than done.
A potential starting place is the Congolese Family Code. In the DRC, a woman’s status depends on her marriage. Although she is often the major source of financial support for her family, the Congolese Family Code requires her to obey her husband who is recognized as the head of the household . Articles 444-448 of the Congolese Family Code states married women cannot pursue legal action without their husband’s agreement. Not only does it place women in a position of submission and dependence on their husbands, these codes also reduce the likelihood of women reporting rape. Article 448 of the D.R.C. family code explicitly states that a woman has to obtain her husband’s permission to bring a case to court. This creates a large problem for widows, unmarried women, and women that want to act on their own accord.
Of course, if a future case does go to trial there is a strong likelihood it will end in an unsatisfactory outcome, as we just saw in the Minova trial. What the Minova trial did show, however, was that the international community is still watching, and perhaps now more than ever. We learned what types of trials make it to court, what types of trials are publicized, and perhaps soon, what happens when a trial doesn’t go in favor of the UN’s wishes.
Parul is currently studying for her Master's degree in international affairs with a focus on economics at UC San Diego's School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS). At IR/PS, Parul is a Dean's Fellow. She also serves as the president of Development Club, the vice president of communications for Net Impact, and the director of finance for Women Going Global. Parul is interested in data visualization and the various methods used to aid vulnerable populations, particularly in conflict and post-conflict settings.
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Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. “Characterizing Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Profiles of Violence, Community Responses, and Implications for the Protection of Women”. (2009)
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