Unarmed and Dangerous

With civilian rape on the rise, the war on Congo's women comes painfully, pervasively home.

Photo of Leonie Kyakimwa Wangivirwa by Lauren Wolfe
Photo of Leonie Kyakimwa Wangivirwa by Lauren Wolfe

BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo — Leonie Kyakimwa Wangivirwa is a petite, tired-looking woman whose life has been punctuated by violence. She bears a sizable keloid scar on her upper arm where her flesh was once badly torn during an arrest for her work educating women about their rights. This activism was inspired, in part, by her survival of multiple acts of rape: She is one of thousands and thousands of women who have been targets of sexualized violence perpetrated by men over nearly two decades in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But unlike the majority of cases reported in Western media, Wangivirwa (pictured above) was violated not only by combatants, but also by so-called "ordinary civilians." This group includes men who have been in the military or a militia at some point but now have left or been discharged. It also includes men who have never been in armed ranks. Men who are married. Men who have children, even daughters. Men who, in some cases, are neighbors, friends, or perhaps even partners of their targets.

Wangivirwa’s story, in other words, does not fall neatly into the narrative of "rape as a weapon of war" so often used to describe the plight of women in Congo. And hers isn’t the only one.

In a recent interview, a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative in eastern Congo said there has been a drastic increase in civilian rape since 2011: More than 77 percent of all the attacks registered in 2013 were perpetrated by civilians. (UNFPA said it will release a report on the subject this month, but did not give an exact publication date.) Going back in time, a 2010 Oxfam study found that civilian rape in Congo increased 17-fold between 2004 and 2008. It’s hard to parse, however, whether such statistics mean that rape by civilians is actually on the rise or whether reporting of it is.

"It’s very hard to give an estimate," said Sandra Sjögren, the Congo coordinator of Physicians for Human Rights, of the devastating problem of civilian rape. "It’s very big. It’s so big that the cultural components that are related aren’t even imagined."

Sjögren, who estimates that maybe just 2 percent of women report rape in Congo, said the country’s ongoing war is being used as something of an excuse at this point — a way of gesturing toward an end to the epidemic of violence against women without recognizing how deep its roots run. "It’s easier to say the conflict has big shoulders almost because, if you blame it on the conflict, then it helps makes it look erratic: ‘If we have peace, we have no more sexualized violence,’" Sjögren said.

Other experts agree that the "weapon of war" frame is obscuring what is truly going on, and that there has been little deep analysis about what causes unrelenting violence against women. In reality, the idea that sexualized violence is somehow acceptable — or at least to be expected — has become deeply embedded in the national psyche. "There are many people that could say, ‘Yeah sexualized violence is being committed by armed groups or the Rwandans.’ But there is a lot of sexualized violence by Congolese against Congolese," said Alejandro Sanchez of the Sexual Violence Unit of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in Congo (known as MONUSCO).

Sanchez said, too, that there is currently a "huge rise in rapes of civilians committed by civilians" and that "this is result of gender inequality roles of women. People are experiencing sexualized violence because of impunity. There is very little chance of getting justice."

Wangivirwa was first raped in 2006, one of six women targeted by as many men, some wearing National Park uniforms, as she farmed beans in her field in Beni, about 20 miles from the border of Uganda. The men were arrested but released quickly. Fearing for her safety, Wangivirwa fled to Oicha in North Kivu province to restart her life. Three years later, however, she was raped again. While farming around 6 p.m. one evening, a group of men in civilian clothes approached her.

At that point in her life, Wangivirwa was doing what is commonly called "sensitization" about International Women’s Day, which falls on March 8. She’d collected $50 from local women to purchase cloth to create matching outfits that the women would wear at an annual celebration of the holiday. The men who came to her that evening in the field came for this money: "We know you have it," they said.

Slapped to the ground and dragged into the bush, Wangivirwa was told she was about to be killed. One of the three men, she recalls, said, "Let’s rape her instead."

They took turns holding her down by her neck and forehead while raping her. She lost consciousness. When they thought she had died, the men dragged her out to the side of the road, fearing that the grandfather of one, who owned the land they were on, would find her body in the morning. Hours later, a man discovered her in the rain and mud and took her to a local chief, who gave her some money. She was escorted to the local office of SOFEPADI, a national organization that provides medical, psychosocial, legal, and other care for rape survivors. Wangivirwa had heard about SOFEPADI on the radio.

Still pained years later by the violent displacement of her hips during the rape, Wangivirwa said she wonders whether the men who violated her — after taking her money — did so because "I was doing this campaign for women. Maybe it made them angry or jealous."

"In my culture, women can’t stand up and speak out," she added.

Wangivirwa said she felt during the attack that she didn’t "deserve to be alive. You think that you are nothing. You don’t have any value in this world."

During the interview, I asked our interpreter, Micheline Muzaneza, a project coordinator at the South Africa-based Sonke Gender Justice Network, why the men would rape women like Wangivirwa on top of stealing from them. "Why do people smoke in your country?" she retorted. In other words, it’s as incomprehensible but also as common as ingesting something known to kill you.

The deprecation of women and girls starts at birth in DRC and traditional beliefs combined with the horrors of war have created an overflowing petri dish of corrupted gender roles. Wangivirwa’s father rejected her, she says, because her mother was only giving birth to girls. "I grew up with that trauma," she said.

Carine Novi Safari, a lawyer and spokeswoman at SOFEPADI, shakes her head when asked why there is such brutality against women. She and Muzaneza list a series of traditional beliefs they said contribute to why civilian men are raping. This includes beliefs in witchcraft, which teaches men that sleeping with a virgin will make them rich or cure HIV or empower them to be able to kill. There’s also the idea that rape can "refresh your kidney" and that sperm "must come out of you or you become infertile." But the main reason Safari and Muzaneza point to, as do others working to combat sexualized violence, is that men are trained at a young age in Congo to fight and be dominant over the weak or vulnerable in order to get what they want — whether that is power, money, or women’s bodies.

Other factors also appear to be in play. Men who have fought in the country’s conflict seem to have "interiorized" the extreme violence they’ve witnessed, according to both experts and Congolese citizens. A 2012 study by the Sonke network and the Brazilian non-profit Promundo in the Congolese city of Goma found that 43 percent of men interviewed had been directly involved in some way with armed groups or government forces. When they stop fighting, there is little or no reintegration from battlefield to home, no counseling, and no relief from trauma. After killing and witnessing the horrors of war, the tipping point toward violence is never far. A study commissioned by the World Bank and published in September 2013 found that "a significant proportion of former combatants showed higher than normal signs of aggression." Of the interviewees, 44 percent said they felt a feeling of satisfaction when harming others, and 35 percent said they still felt the urge to fight.

On top of that, there is a lack of male leadership and role models in the country, according to Muthaka Ilot, director of an outreach group called the Congo Men’s Network, which works to end violence against women and promote positive forms of masculinity. "You try to find a model to follow, you can’t even find one. You try to find one they tell you, ‘Everyone rapes.’ The governor rapes, the neighbor rapes. What do you do?"

"It’s like family and society itself burst after the war — it just fell apart," said a journalist in the city of Bunia who asked that his name be withheld. There has been an overall breakdown of respect within communities and families, he explains, "a lot of social valves don’t exist anymore." Before the war, sexualized violence was commonly punished within the community, adds Julienne Lusenge, head of SOFEPADI. "The village chief had power among the population and the community, but really now, with impunity reigning everywhere, it’s allowing this [problem] to grow."

It is not known whether women targeted by civilians in Congo generally know their attackers or not. But intimate-partner violence is certainly far from unheard of. In the global context, a survey published in Science in June 2013 showed that 30 percent of women worldwide have experienced such violence. And in Congo specifically, the Sonke/Promundo study showed that 65 percent of women reported having experienced violence, including sexualized violence, from a male partner.

Overcoming impunity is the key to stopping civilian rape, but that means more than just creating more laws. The 2006 constitution already requires a 20-year minimum sentence for rape, but enforcement is a joke. "We can start to punish the perpetrators in a meaningful way," the Bunia journalist said. "If we just do it in one place, people will see they can’t get away with it."

In addition, community-level activism is critical to changing attitudes, and so is personal and peer-to-peer empowerment of both women and men, who need to feel as though they do not require guns or weaponized bodies to survive.

When asked what would help her heal, Wangivirwa said she wants to sit in rooms full of men who have committed sexualized violence and facilitate conversations with them about rape. "If I contribute to the education of these men," she said, "I will feel better."

"I’m fighting for other women," she added. "I want the world to know this. I won’t stop."

Lauren Wolfe is a journalist and director of Women Under Siege, a journalism project on sexualized violence based at the Women's Media Center in New York. Twitter: @wolfe321

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