New thinking on sexual violence in the DR Congo

New thinking on sexual violence in the DR Congo

A new study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association questions some traditional gender notions surrounding sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It found that sexual violence against civilians in the eastern DRC is indeed horrifyingly widespread. Most notably, both men and women reported being victims of sexual violence-23.6 percent of men surveyed and 39.7 percent of women. Additionally, this study was the first to ask about perpetrators’ genders in conflict-related sexual violence. 41 percent of female and 10 percent of male survivors reported that their attacker was a woman.

This study was an attempt by researchers to add some needed depth to current understanding of sexual violence in the DRC-a part of the world commonly known as "the ground zero of rape" where sexual violence is used as a weapon of a war that first began in 1994 and has since killed millions of people, even after a 2003 peace treaty.

The typical language surrounding rape in the DRC-"Stop raping our greatest resource: Power to the girls and women of Democratic Republic of Congo," for example-asserts that women are the abused and men the abusers. Atrocities in the DRC have gained attention recently as writers and activists, including the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, have noted that fighting over minerals in the Congo have turned smart phones into "blood phones."

Previous studies have only provided anecdotal reports and often only evaluated already identified survivors of sexual violence. Because of social stigmatization many survivors (especially male) face in reporting violence, rates of non-report are as high as 75 percent, and may be higher in conflict areas, according to the study.

With a mission to assess the wider impact of sexual violence in eastern Congo, American researchers went door-to-door with a 144-question survey administered to 998 adults (593 female and 405 male) in North and South Kivu provinces and the Ituri district. It asked about basic demographic information (including education, health care access, and past and current substance abuse), as well as lifetime exposure to sexual violence, combatant experience, and opinions on women’s roles in society, and justice for sexual violence. Respondents were asked if they had ever been forced into sexual slavery, sexual abuse type (including rape and attempted rape, molestation, and gang rape), and about the identity of the perpetrator, number of attackers, and consequences of the attack.  They were also assessed for symptoms of PTSD, depression, and other types of mental illness.

This area has a long history of forced recruitment into armed groups. Twenty percent of those surveyed reported personal combat history-both men and women performed the same tasks within armed groups, except for sexual slavery (women were more than twice as likely to be victimized here than men). The majority of sexual violence reported was conflict-related, disputing some recent studies that have shown civilian-perpetuated sexual violence is on the rise.

"We can no longer think that sexual violence is just violence against women perpetrated by men, it is about everybody," study author Lynn Lawry, of the International Health Division of the U.S. Department of Defense, told the UN’s Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN). Action and advocacy combating sexual violence needs to include men and boys, a statement echoed by a paper from Sweden’s NordicAfrica Institute published in May, which criticized "the invisibility of men and boys as victims of sexual and gender-based violence."

Some NGOs have disputed the study, saying that while there were male victims of sexual violence, statistics on female perpetrators are too low to be conclusive. For example, according to IRIN, Ciarán Donnelly, head of the International Rescue Committee in the DRC, noted that it was "unclear whether women kidnapped by armed groups and forced to perform sexual acts on others were listed among the perpetrators." The study’s methodology has also been called into question-interviewers had to avoid currently active combat zones.

The study was funded by the DOD’s Africa Command, the International Medical Corps, and McGill University.