Congo Takes First Important Step Against Gender Violence

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Written by Andrew Friedman

The “rape capital of the world.” That is how former United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallstrom once described the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While the country’s civil war is over, sexual violence continues at astounding levels in much of the country’s East.

Statistics are notoriously difficult to collect, but many estimates put the number of rapes in the region in the hundreds of thousands. Another study, relying on data from 2006, estimated that there were 48 rapes per hour, or over 1150 per day, and 12 percent of the country’s women have been victims at one time or another.

In such a dire situation it is often difficult to even imagine hope. The level of sexual violence found in the country’s East (and, according to many international observers, throughout the country as a whole) can lead to a dangerous level of apathy or even acceptance. It is precisely this that makes rare moments of progress so important.

First reported by the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch, the beginning of this month saw a Congolese military court convict General Jerome Kakwavu of rape. The officer, known for his ruthlessness, was the first such high ranking general convicted of sexual violence in the country.

This is a major step in a country that has seen far too much impunity for the worst perpetrators of sexual violence. In a piece published just a day before the end of her time as a UN Special Representative, Wallstrom reflected on the DRC by simply stating “impunity reigns.”

Kakwavu’s Conviction

Kakwavu’s conviction is only the first step on a long road towards ending this culture of impunity, but it is a vital first step. He is not the first Congolese soldier convicted of rape.

Military courts in the country have handed down 187 convictions for sexual violence over the last several years. However, the vast majority of these convictions were of low level soldiers. According to Human Rights Watch, of the 187, only 3 were senior army officers, none at the Kakwavu’s of general.

HRW’s Anneke Van Woudenberg documented many of the abuses and excesses of Kakwavu and wrote upon his conviction that what had stood out for her as she observed the region “was the fear of the parents of teenage girls. Kakwavu regularly ordered his fighters to go to local schools to find pretty young girls who he would sexually enslave for days or weeks. Parents who desperately tried to free their daughters were arrested or threatened. Parents stopped sending their girls to school, fearing for their safety.”

The conviction also comes at an important time for the DRC, as the government attempts to prevent future abuses and clean up its international reputation.

Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo recently told the Guardian that the country was hoping to turn a corner and move past the label by ending the culture of impunity, investing in education and working for the country’s economic development.

Yesterday we were a country at war, with raped women, and child soldiers…But today we’re a country with an economy that’s growing at 8 percent, inflation is at 1 percent and we have very high currency reserves. We’re building roads and schools and hospitals are going up,” Ponyo said.

He also discussed the importance of such prosecutions and stated that the country is working to hold those responsible to account for their crimes. Ponyo finished by saying that “the time for war is over; now it’s time for business.”

Unwillingness to Tackle Rape

Ponyo’s optimism aside, there are indications that the country is unwilling to deal with just how bad its sexual violence problem is. He even denied that sexual violence was a problem outside of the country’s east, even while much of the international community continues to observe violence outside of its eastern epicenter.

In one example, Laura Seay, an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College who focuses on the DRC, observed that the influx of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel movement from Uganda that joined the American popular lexicon after the #Kony2012 movement, made Dungu and surrounding territories far outside North Kivu and other eastern areas, incredible unsafe for women.

No one thing will solve the crisis of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The problem is far too ingrained for a single solution.

One extremely difficult part of the problem is the culture of impunity that has led too many to go unpunished for horrific acts of sexual violence. As one Congolese woman once told Wallstrom regarding the impunity of perpetrators, “a dead rat is worth more than the body of a woman” in the DRC.

Concerted efforts to punish those responsible for such atrocities are an important step in stemming the sexual violence. While development and international assistance can only help unite the war-torn country, they are not enough.

As Van Woudenberg wrote, “Kakwavu’s conviction begins to shatter the illusion that generals are shielded from the law. Other officers contemplating human rights abuses in Congo should take note. ”

Perhaps, in time, the illusion will be completely shattered and no one will be able to hide from justice after taking part in such atrocities. The judgment is a very simple first step, but all solutions have to start somewhere.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at afriedm2@gmail.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.