The destruction of women identity after sexual violence in DRC post conflict communities
As odd as it may seem, sexual violence has become, in some cases of conflict, one of the very instruments of war. Although unconventional, it is a ‘weapon’ that has been ‘strategically’ used and that is very frequent in the Congo civil wars context. Yet, despite the fact that it is considered to be part of an effective military strategy during a conflict, it can sometimes continue to be perpetuated in a post-conflict context : a period in which the conflict is over, usually defined after peaceful conflict resolutions are achieved or if one of the states at war wins.
But what is considered sexual violence and why and how does it occur in post-conflict communities?
The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is often referred to as ‘Africa’s World War’ because of its regional proximity with Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda or even Angola. Unfortunately, the local conflicts happening in the neighbouring countries have been seen to have spilled onto the region which is the case of the 1994 Rwanda genocide leading to the civil war in Eastern DRC in August 1996 mainly related to their undesired presence in the country. Despite peace agreements in 2002 and 2008, insecurity and violence still remain in post-conflict communities in DRC.
Indeed, the wave of sexual violence in DRC can be traced back to the wake of the civil wars. According to the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and Open Society Institute and defined by other scholars as well, ‘sexual violence takes many forms and may involve physical abuse, public rape, abduction and sexual slavery, repeated rape and gang rape’ and rape was used as an effective ‘weapon of war’ to destroy communities in the DRC context especially in the North and South Kivu region. In these cases, the most common victims of sexual violence are women and even young girls who can be as young as 10 years old and these acts are perpetuated by armed and rebel forces, the police and even from UN peacekeeping forces who were found to be buying sex slaves from villagers in exchange for food during their mission. One could think that when the conflict would end, any atrocities would stop and the civilians would be free from insecurity within their own space. Yet, in post-conflict societies in Eastern DRC, civilians keep living in the fear tied to criminal activities of the armed groups as they continue to feel insecure as violence keeps going. The environment remained especially hostile towards women.
The reintegration of women in DRC post-conflict communities after sexual violence
As mentioned before, rape during the conflict was commonly used as a way to destroy families and communities as part of a war strategy. But being a victim of rape in DRC goes further than being part of an armed group’s ‘war strategy’; In the DRC context, being a victim of rape is the literal destruction of one self.
In DRC, there is a great importance attributed to a woman’s role and value especially within her family. In the Congo family code, women must obey their husbands as the head of household and the country’s own laws until this day makes it clear that a woman’s role is secondary and is in some way only reduced to being someone’s wife. For a woman to be valued in her community, she needs to stay in the house, take care of the children and keep her body ‘sacred’. Indeed, virginity is extremely important for men in DRC and it is highly related with a woman’s value. If a woman is a virgin then she has a higher value in the eyes of the community. As women are already disadvantaged in economically and socially in their daily lives, rape makes it even worse for a woman and results in a loss of value and identity in the eyes of a woman’s family but community as well. Indeed, the reintegration of a woman after a rape is filled with many obstacles. As the woman loses her value, a destruction of her identity occurs and she no longer has her place in the society. During an interview on consequences of rape in communities, some members went as far as saying that a woman after being raped is ‘just like a dog, you can do whatever to her, throw stones’ (according to studies done by Ingebjørg Finnbakk and Ragnhild Nordas).
In Eastern DRC, in some cases, when women come back as survivors from rape, their reintegration is not the same as one could expect in countries where rape is not a stigma anymore. When women in DRC try to come back to their home after being abused, they do not get the support and love they need. Their come back results in rejection and alienation by their own relatives and sometimes members of the communities. Although every survivor’s history is different and some may not be rejected by everyone, the road to reintegration is often one with many obstacles.
Although a distinction is made between rape during the conflict and after, because rape during a conflict is seen as a strategy, this distinction does not change anything in the way a woman is perceived in the eyes of her environment. The problem for a community to accept survivors of sexual violence ultimately clashes with the ‘value’ of a woman after being raped regardless of the fact that the woman is the victim.
Because a woman’s identity is inextricably linked with her husband’s, her value is thus a reflection on the husband as well. Thus not only does the woman lose her values, but in some way, in the eyes of the community, the husband, and especially if he remains with his wife afterwards, loses his value as well. This pressure and stigma from the community but that can come from the husband’s own relatives as well leaves the husband humiliated and leads him to eventually completely reject his wife. Sometimes, the reason is also the fear of sickness (i.e. catching HIV) which in most cases even if the woman proves that she did not catch any disease, she ends up being rejected nevertheless.
In some cases, the community also refuse to welcome survivors of sexual violence. Mentioned by independent researchers such as Anjalee Kohli, some communities fear the ‘cassava’ effect or ‘domino’ theory on their community. They see the situation as an issue that could potentially affect the community as a whole and taint it. Just like a sickness, everyone could be affected.
In addition to the alienation by their relatives, women are reportedly suffering from physical and mental trauma. After sexual violence, especially the ones caused by armed groups, women are exposed to violent physical trauma such as mutilations which scarred them for life. Some women would experience their vagina or rectum being left permanently torn or burnt. These physical traumas are often accompanied with mental trauma as well such as anxiety, depression or PTSD. These have a very damaging consequence on women’s behavior and their lives are no longer the same afterwards.
Can women ever be reintegrated?
Despite the fact that reintegration seems to be almost impossible for women, the community sometimes believe that there are still some options to be reintegrated within a community if a woman has been a victim of rape. One of them is to get married to her perpetrator. Many consider marriage the ultimate way for a woman to gain back respect and be fully reintegrated if she has been a victim of rape. Another one could be leaving her actual community for another where no one would know that she is a survivor of sexual violence. Finally, sometimes, education and professional success can indeed help reduce the stigma. Indeed, many members of communities do not believe that there are any obstacles in the professional sphere as a survivor of sexual violence. Most of the time if women do a good job, they would most likely give her access to the market and even buy from her. What is also important to note is, as said before, not every experience is the same and although rare, there are some cases where women are reintegrated back into their own communities supporting them to get back on their feet.
What is done for the victims within the country?
Obviously, the government and even the international community has often been called to open their eyes on the situation in Eastern DRC and implement measures to reduce the violence or at least facilitate the reintegration. As a consequence, there is several facilitating reintegration centers and sometimes NGOs or hospitals which which assist victims with medical and economic needs yet as there were no real education on the perpetuation of a
stigma on victims, the shame of the victims themselves remain greater which sometimes prevent a successful outcome to any help proposed. Moreover, prosecutions remain scarce and almost nonexistent, only a handful have been arrested and prosecuted but the majority remain free, encouraging perpetrators to continue and never fear repercussions.
Indeed sexual violence during the conflict and even after, in the Eastern DRC region, results in women being deprived of their own human fundamental needs. Their identity is completely altered and even destroyed and the stigma remains greater than anything for reintegration in communities. Injustice is perpetuated as abusers carry on their violent cycle in a history that repeats itself in the country because rarely do they get punished, shamed nor arrested for such acts
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Liantosa is a third year War Studies student at King's College, London. She researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & War Studies Department Internship programme.