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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

CRSV: DR Congo

This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.

Background of the Conflict

The persistent fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is among one of the most lethal armed conflicts since the Second World War (Reyntjens 2009). The DRC’s political history reveals that land, language, ethnicity, migration, access to natural resources and national security are the most prominent of a host of factors that have helped protract the conflict. After the Rwandan civil war, refugees fled to the neighbouring DRC, then Zaire (Gondola 2002). Some Interahamwe – a militia partially responsible for the Rwandan genocide – crossed the border to avoid prosecution for their crimes against humanity.

The Rwandan genocide was the catalyst to the conflict in the DRC. In 1994, approximately 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis were killed in the genocide perpetrated by the key Rwandan power brokers, members of the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR), the Interahamwe, and other ad hoc militias (Nest 2006). In June-July 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), comprising Tutsi exiles who operated out of Uganda, usurped Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, plugging killings by the Hutu. Fearing prosecution for the crimes they committed, over a million Hutus fled into DRC, seeking refuge from possible reprisals from the civilians, the government, and the justice system.

The DRC became space for them to regroup and retaliate with reprisals across the border, against the surviving Rwandan Tutsis (Plaut 2016). The region where the Rwandan Tutsis were present, was by itself, a hotbed of conflict. Longstanding ethnic tensions blew up into violence between Congolese people, ethnic groups and speakers of Kinyarwanda, under the notion that the latter were not true Congolese (Vlassenroot 2006a). The Hutus entered the battle, augmenting existing tensions and conflicts, culminating in the exodus of as many as 38,000 Congolese Tutsis to seek refuge in Rwanda in 1995.

Rwanda relied on national security and stability concerns owing to Hutu extremism in 1996, as a basis to fuel a rebellion in DR Congo, with Laurent Kabila at the helm. This rebellion overthrew erstwhile president Mobutu, and culminated in the First Congo War. Rwanda armed and trained the Kinyarwanda-speaking fighters in Kabila’s troupe, called the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, which joined regular armed forces from Rwanda and Burundi. Refugee camps in Eastern DR Congo were the targets. The groups advanced in on Kinshasa, targeting refugees all the while, ultimately ousting Mobutu and installing Laurent Kabila as the President. The First Congo War had ended (Vlassenroot 2006b).

The fighting, however, was still not over. In 1998, new tensions and frictions between the Kabila Government, Rwanda and Uganda began, lasting until 2002. The rebel groups – with backing from the Rwandan and Ugandan governments – began launching attacks in the east, with the goal of overthrowing Kabila. Renewed conflicts brought Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe into the picture, in assistance of Kabila. Twenty five separate armed groups fought each other. Despite the interim 1999 ceasefire signed in Zambia and the UN’s deployment of UNMONUC (the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 2000, fighting thrived on a massive scale. In 2001, President Kabila was assassinated. With the incumbent’s office having fallen empty, his son, Joseph Kabila, assumed the presidency.

The conflict ran its course in 2002, when the Second Congo War ended following the signing of another peace agreement between the Congolese government and the rebel groups in 2002. The compromise was that Rwanda would withdraw its troops from the region, in exchange for a promise from the Congolese government that it would disarm and arrest all the Rwandan Hutus who committed genocide. Despite this, the fighting still continued.

Elections in pursuit of a mandate for the Lusaka Agreement were held in 2006. Joseph Kabila was formally elected, and several agreements were forged with rebel groups. One such group, the Mai Mai, were set to be integrated into the regular Congolese armed forces, although not much has been done on this front. The fighting continued in an attempt to win control over the country’s lucrative mineral wealth.

Peace agreements were brokered in all sincerity – with the 2007 Nairobi Communique between Rwanda and the DR Congo, the 2008 Goma Agreement between the DR Congo and Laurent Nkunda, a rebel leader. Nevertheless, the fighting has not ceased. By February 2008, there was an estimated toll of 6,000-7,000 foreign, non-state armed groups who were active in Eastern DR Congo. Coupled with the fighting were a host of other factors – including the lack of sufficient food, frugal water resources, the collapse of healthcare systems and disease – which added to the death toll. Children have been conscripted into the army, torture has been a choice weapon.

Sexual Violence in the Congo

Amidst death, displacement, disease and squalor, thousands of women were raped and mutilated in the DRC (Oxfam 2010). Many can attest that the momentum to kill and maim is still in full swing despite a peace agreement signed in 2003. Sexual violence in Congo goes back to the beginnings of the conflict itself. The regular armed forces of all nations involved in the two wars, plus the numerous rebel groups, have widely used rape as a weapon of war.

The Congolese regular army (FARDC) and the Congolese National Police Force (PNC) account for close to 20 percent of all sexual violence. The integration of former militia members into regular armed forces, with no mechanism for excluding human rights violators, has contributed to the problem. Those in positions of government authority are also among the perpetrators, and even UN peacekeepers have committed acts of sexual violence. As rape was adopted as the preferred weapon of control, so women have had to suffer the horrors of gang rapes, torture, sexual slavery, sexual abuse and harassment.

Armed groups began functioning like organized crime cartels, employing force to win control of mineral deposits in Congo. The outside world boycott the trade in these “conflict minerals” as they came to be known. This, however, was of little use to the women who suffered, and those who continue to suffer. These offences themselves went largely unchecked and unnoticed. The war provided an easy climate for such offences to take place. Congolese men have been killed because they refused to indulge in raping their sisters, daughters and mothers.

The Strategic Use of Sexual Violence

The widespread and systematic use of rape and sexual violence as a tool of war has become the face of the conflict in the DRC. Sexual violence was used to target populations to humiliate women. Thousands of cases of physical and psychological trauma have ensued, which is further compounded by the social stigma faced by victims (Martens 2004). Survivors were rejected by their spouses, parents, and children. To be related to a victim of sexual violence was detrimental to the honour of the family. In the few families where survivors were accepted, they were doomed to subservience, or forced to accept that their husbands would remarry. Unmarried girls as victims of sexual violence suffer greater indignities – many were forced to marry those that raped them, while still others were thrown out of their houses. In a related way, sexual violence was also used to silence and intimidate communities in the pursuit of power. Knowing full well the stigma attached to rape, several incidents were reported wherein family members were forced to rape women in their household under the threat of death.

Rape and sexual violence, particularly by the Mai Mai militia members (Guy 2014), was seen as a way to protect and empower soldiers – as the act of rape was seen as fortifying soldiers for battle. Some Mai Mai soldiers also suggested that “Satan” or “the devil” provoked them to commit rape.

Sexual violence was also used as a means to control territories and natural resources (Kelly 2010). The DRC is wealthy in mineral resources. Women near mines were often targeted for either control over the entire territory, or to force them to work in the mines at low to now wages, or to even control the natural resources that the community in question had access to.

In some instances, rape and sexual violence were perpetrated when those in the lower order of the chain of command wanted to avoid facing violence at the hands of their superiors (Kelly 2010).

The physical burden of being a victim of sexual violence is a very, very difficult prospect. Women find themselves suffering fistulas from the repetitive instances of sexual harassment, often incurable or at the very least requiring multiple surgeries. Pregnancy complications, incontinence and internal bleeding are only the tip of the iceberg. Women sometimes keep away from speaking out in fear – of either stigmatisation or of incurring the wrath of the perpetrator. Poor health care offers only so little to remedy their condition.


Gondola, Ch. Didier. (2002) The History of Congo, Greenwood Press.

Guy, K. M. (2014). Mai-Mai militia and sexual violence in Democratic Republic of the Congo. International journal of emergency mental health, 16(2), 366-372.

Kelly, Jocelyn. 2010. Rape in War: Motives of Militia in DRC

Martens, Jackie. 2004. Congo rape victims seek solace.

Michael Nest with François Grignon and Emizet F. Kisangani: The Democratic Republic of Congo: Economic Dimensions of War and Peace, Lynne Rienner, 2006

Oxfam (2010). New report shows shocking pattern of rape in eastern Congo

Plaut, Martin (2016). Understanding Eritrea: Inside Africa's Most Repressive State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reyntjens, Filip. The Great African War: Congo and Regional Geopolitics, 1996–2006. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009.

Vlassenroot, Koen. "Conflict & Malitia Formation in Eastern Congo." Ed. Preben Kaarsholm. Violence, Political Culture & Development in Africa. Athens: Ohio UP, 2006a

Vlassenroot, Koen. "Conflict & Malitia Formation in Eastern Congo." Ed. Preben Kaarsholm. Violence, Political Culture & Development in Africa. Athens: Ohio UP, 2006b

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