(This post draws from the Al Jazeera English story Rape in DR Congo: A ‘weapon of war’).
According to the above story, more than 200,000 people have been raped in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998, the vast majority of them women. In this nation, women are treated as the property of their husbands and fathers. Thus, when a soldier rapes a woman, he is sending a message to that woman’s male “owners” that those owners have no power and that their property can be easily and violently stolen from them. In this way, rape is an extremely powerful weapon of war, both tearing down the women who are subjected to this horror and their male family members who are humiliated and subjugated in the process. This obscene human rights violation cannot be allowed to continue, and those soldiers and rebels perpetrating rape need to be brought to justice in the DRC. The major question remaining is how.
Recently, the United Nations issued an ultimatum to two army battalions that are believed to be the largest perpetrators of rape. The UN has a mandate that directs them to support the Congolese army as they fight off rebel groups, but they must also ensure that the army does not engage in human rights violations against civilians. Due to the rape epidemic, the UN has stated that they will cease assisting these two brigades unless real changes are made to arrest and punish those members who commit rape. While the authority of the UN is a benefit to this particular approach, there are still several weaknesses to this proposal. First, it is very difficult to sanction select battalions while simultaneously supporting others. These groups are often interconnected and share resources, so the UN would still be indirectly providing assistance to the worst perpetrators. Additionally, while this approach does target Congolese soldiers, it does nothing to address the rebels that are also committing rape on a massive scale. Many argue that this threat of suspension is not an aggressive enough stance to take, and that is will take a larger scale commitment to end such a massive problem.
Another solution involves calling upon the Congolese government to implement reforms on the army and justice system in the DRC. Many are calling for the government to take a stand against these atrocities and to restructure the army in such a way that rapists are not continually rewarded for their actions. The government has made statements saying that they would like to make these reforms, but nothing has happened yet. Some argue that the Congolese government only has control over the capital city anyway, and thus they have little power over the country and the army in general. Thus, international help is necessary to implement these changes and to hold the Congolese government accountable to ensure that reform happens.
Epidemic rape is a problem impacting the entire Congolese society, and it is going to take a large-scale, society-wide approach to solve it. Solving such a problem requires both the will and the means to do so; not only do you need groups that have the necessary motivation to tackle the problem, but you need groups that, when combined, have enough means (power, money, resources) to actually have an effect. This is why the UN and the Congolese government need to come together to create a long term plan to combat epidemic rape that moves beyond a few sanctions. To present, very few DRC soldiers have been sanctioned for committing rape. Only very low level commanders and soldiers have been held responsible in any capacity, and their numbers are still very few. We need to begin sanctioning the commanders of offending brigades, in the hopes that these high-level punishments will send messages that resonate with the entire Congolese army. These punishments would demonstrate that soldiers are not immune to punishment just because of a high rank, and that everyone involved will be held accountable for rape.
As a more long term effort, the UN and the government need to be addressing society-wide conditions that allow such atrocities to continue. There need to be efforts to improve economic condition, to improve attitudes towards women, and to educate the population as a whole. Without these fundamental efforts, societal attitudes will not change and the population will still be at still be at risk for such mistreatment of women. Just as rape culture is something that needs to be addressed in the United States, work needs to be done to address the rape culture of the DRC. This is going to involve much more than just a few sanctions and a few commanders in prison.