WHEN TWO BULLS FIGHT…: WOMEN AND GIRLS IN THE DRC CONFLICT
by Bathseba Opini and Aline Nizigama
The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the most devastating post-independence conflicts on the African continent. It has disrupted the social, cultural, economic and political conditions of the people. It is widely estimated that, to date, more than 5 million people have lost their lives and/or been displaced. Women and children are the most affected. Widespread rape and other forms of sexual violence perpetrated by armed forces, militia, insurgent groups and even civilians have made the DRC a precarious territory for women and girls to reside in. However, one has to remain hopeful. An array of practical short-term and long-term solutions could be implemented to address this problem. Before such solutions are suggested, a brief look at the history behind the gender-based violence that women and girls are experiencing in the DRC today is in order.
Background to the DRC Crisis
The roots of the DRC conflict lie in its great wealth of natural resources and people’s desire to control and exploit them. In pursuit of rubber wealth, up to 25 million people died in the DRC under King Leopold II’s rule, and his repressive leadership style was inherited by the post-independent elites. It started in January 1961 with the assassination of the first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, purportedly because of his anti-capitalist stance. Lumumba had been dismissed from office by Joseph Kasavubu, the then president, who was himself ousted by Joseph-Desire Mobutu in 1965. Mobutu ruled the country as his personal property and misappropriated its resources. The nation’s wealth became the preserve of a few “well connected” elites while the majority of the Congolese people remained landless peasants, low-ranking civil servants or unemployed. The gap between rich and poor became intolerable and there emerged open conflicts between them. Political dissent became wide-spread and it resulted in organized resistance.
||“The roots of the DRC conflict lie in its great wealth of natural resources and people’s desire to control and exploit them… The nation’s wealth became the preserve of a few ‘well connected’ elites… The gap between rich and poor became intolerable.”
In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, approximately 1.5 million Hutus fled Rwanda to the Congo and settled in refugee camps. Among these refugees were Hutu militants who were a threat to the Tutsis in eastern DRC. Finally in 1996, when the Tutsis were deprived of DRC citizenship and threatened with expulsion, an anti-Mobutu rebellion led by Laurent Kabila emerged with support from several neighboring African countries, particularly Rwanda. Mobutu finally fled the country and died in exile in 1997. Laurent Kabila declared himself head of state.
The Congolese people hoped that Kabila was going to change conditions, but he did not. Like Mobutu, he squandered the country’s resources and banned all opposition political parties. People resisted, and Kabila began to lose his grip on the country. After a year in power, Kabila broke his alliance with the Tutsi-led government of Rwanda (who had greatly assisted him to power), an action that turned Rwanda and Uganda against his regime. These two neighbouring countries, in turn, backed Congolese rebel factions to topple Kabila. At this point (1998), Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia came to Kabila’s rescue, supplying troops and military equipment. The Hutu militiamen responsible for the Rwandan genocide and who had sought and obtained refuge in the Congo also fought on the side of Kabila’s government.
In 2001, in an ongoing manifestation of DRC’s violence, Kabila was assassinated and his son Joseph took over. He tried to negotiate a peace deal with Rwanda and Uganda in 2001, but the conflict reignited in 2002. In 2006, the DRC held its first multi-party elections, which Joseph Kabila won in spite of allegations of voting irregularities. Joseph Kabila continues to lead the country in 2010. The country is still experiencing significant economic, social and political challenges. Inflation is on the rise, corruption is widespread, and all administrative and economic structures suffer from a lack of resources and transparency.
||“All administrative and economic structures suffer from a lack of resources and transparency… (and) the desire by African nations and international players to profit from the country’s mineral wealth.”
Compounding the problems of leadership in the DRC is the desire by African nations and international players to profit from the country’s mineral wealth. Lured by the Congo’s mineral resources, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Namibia have all taken advantage of internal conflicts in the DRC and sided with either the government of the day or with rebel groups. Rwandan and Ugandan armies are said to have grown wealthy as a consequence of the conflict and minerals of the DRC. Indeed natural resources in the Congo have been more of a curse than a blessing for the country.
The DRC crisis is thus not of the Congolese people’s making alone; external forces have also played a role. We should be aware of the complicity of western powers and neighbouring African nations. We should consider who is supplying the warring camps with arms, financing and training the soldiers and militias, and why. We cannot ignore the role of the international community especially its supply of arms and investment in illicit mining. The wealth generated from these activities ends up in western countries, a fact documented by more than one UN Security Council report.
Vulnerability of Women and Children in the War
There is a Kiswahili saying that goes ” Wapiganapo ndume wawili, aumiaye ni nyasi ” (When two bulls fight, it is the grass that suffers). The common people of the DRC, especially women and children, have always paid a hefty price for these conflicts and this is particularly true of the conflicts of the last decade in eastern Congo. Sexual violence against women and girls in this part of the DRC is rampant and it can serve specific war purposes. It is utilized as a tactic of political and psychosocial control (Beneduce, et al, 2006). In Rape in War: The humanitarian response (2000), L. Schank and M.J. Schull see rape as a weapon to “terrorize communities and to achieve ethnic cleansing.”
||“Sexual violence against women and girls in this part of the DRC is rampant and it can serve specific war purposes. It is utilized as a tactic of political and psychosocial control.”
Such sexual violence has immediate and long-term physical, psychological and social consequences. Physically, the women’s bodies are destroyed. There have been incidents where rapists push objects up the women’s and girls’ vaginas after rape, destroying their reproductive system (Human Rights Report, 2002). Rape in the DRC conflict has also contributed to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Psychologically, many women and children remain traumatized following their horrible rape experiences. Socially, those who are raped often experience stigma and being ostracized from their families and communities.
There are also broader economic and political consequences. When the lives of women and children are threatened, the state is also threatened. Women in the DRC play a crucial role in the country’s economy. According to C. Suda (1996), the survival of the family and that of the future of the nation depends on the well-being of the female population. Women’s efforts in producing and processing food in the country are under serious threat. With the current war, women do not feel safe enough to go to the farms to till the land. Rape is thus contributing to famine in the region. The subsistence sector has collapsed leading to further tragedies, such as sickness and malnutrition.
Respecting and Protecting Women and Girls: A Framework and Approaches
What has happened to the old proverb “A woman must not be killed”? She is the mother of life and to kill the woman is to kill children, and thus to kill humanity itself. A woman should be handled with respect in society! The privileged classes in the DRC are busy amassing wealth for themselves while the people are suffering. The country cannot prosper when a large percentage of its population is insecure and poor. The following paragraphs outline some recommendations to protect women and give them the role they should have:
- There is an urgent need for a holistic and sustainable framework to find solutions to the problem in the DRC. The framework should address the social, cultural, political, economic, and spiritual wounds resulting from the war. Such a framework requires the goodwill of the leaders in the DRC and its people, the countries in the African region that are currently involved in the crisis and their citizens, together with the whole African continent and the international community. J. Ward and M. Marsh (2006) argue that rape and other types of sexually violent practice in wartime used to be taboo subjects that victims hid and that society dared not address. Slowly but surely, gender-based violence has now become part of global public discourse. Today, discussion of the condition of women in the DRC has increased tremendously. The use of rape as a weapon to terrorize communities is no longer just a crime but a crime against humanity, punishable by international law. Systematic rape during political unrest is considered a violation of human rights. Leaders in the DRC should now follow suit and condemn and bring to justice all those involved in the sexual abuse of women in the country. There is also a need to address the stigma that accompanies rape. Survivors of sexual violence should be encouraged to come out and speak about their experiences without fear of being shunned by their families, rejected by their spouses or by the whole community. Local and international governments should develop community programs aimed specifically at helping such women reintegrate with their communities.
- Traditionally, children and youth were taught important moral standards of behavior. They learned about personal discipline, exercising self-control, respecting parents, elders and other community members, and they understood the consequences of violating such standards. It is important to tap into this rich indigenous African ethic of respect and honour for women and children. In traditional African settings, the protection of women and their participation in the decision making process were fundamental. Colonization saw women’s roles redefined as subordinate to those of men. Today men remain the power holders and women barely have any leadership positions in civil society or the political arena. Even in peace and reconciliation dialogues, women either have no representation at all or they are tokenized. Traditional teachings should be used to sensitize the soldiers, militia and other youth who are violating women and girls. The church, educational institutions and government should also incorporate these indigenous teachings in their programs to propagate peace and reconciliation.
- In 2001, women’s rights advocates around the globe acclaimed the implementation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) because of its potential for developing a meaningful accountability framework for sexual violence against women in armed conflict. L.S.R. Jefferson (2004) believes that its formulation provides a clear definition of what constitutes war crimes particularly as they relate to gender-based violence, including rape, sex traffic, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, and forced marriage. Moreover, the statutes in the ICC have a provision for aiding the investigation process and the protection of witnesses. The ICC started monitoring the evolution of the situation in Ituri, eastern DRC, in July 2003. This region has been disproportionately hit by sexual violence but thus far not many of the criminals have been brought to justice. Within Africa itself, the African Union is committed to promoting peace and security, democratic institutions, good governance and human rights on the continent. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), formed in 2001, also seeks to address and prevent political conflicts; to strengthen democratic, political and economic governance systems and institutions, and to address challenges related to poverty and to underdeveloped infrastructure. While we may boast of the ICC, AU and NEPAD guidelines, we also need to ask, who is doing what? Where are the women in all these initiatives? If the men who head these bodies are genuinely committed to promoting democracy, good governance, equity and human rights on the continent, they ought to give women equal representation in the running of the organizations, decision making power and a role in planning and, in this case, implementing solutions for addressing the plight of the women in the DRC.
||“While we may boast of the ICC, AU and NEPAD guidelines, we also need to ask… Where are the women in all these initiatives?”
The Way Forward
Because the aftermath of the atrocities committed against women and children lasts for a long period of time, and because intergenerational trauma is inevitable, important question are: How is healing to be attained? How do we create sustainable peace? What is the best way forward?
Africa has for a long time looked to the West to solve its problems. Gerald Caplan (2008) as well as Nhema (2004) believe that while advice and prescriptions from the West may be helpful, the solutions to some of Africa’s conflicts will have to be home-grown, drawing on local resources to address the challenges that face the country. Nhema argues that when negotiation and reconciliation efforts are put within the framework of existing local socio-economic, political and cultural structures, and given opportunity, they work. The envisioned framework which draws on indigenous conflict resolution methodologies should have a good representation of women. This is one crucial way society and those in power can begin to take seriously the problems that women and girls are facing. Government decrees and directives and policies by international NGOs and governments are not going to help resolve the problem when they come down as statements detached from the lived realities of the affected women. No significant change can truly take place without the participation of these women in shaping their future.
Engaging women to be active builders of tomorrow’s DRC civil society needs to become a political goal. UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, passed in October 2000, reaffirms the crucial role that women can play in preventing conflict in the first place, and in promoting lasting peace after conflict. Recovery is possible in post-conflict zones and it starts with turning the page and, in Jefferson’s words, imagining a society founded on “improving the future outlook of rape and gender-based violence survivors” and on empowering and “promoting civil, political, economic, cultural, and social rights for all women.” For instance, in addition to ending violence, as D.C. Gondola (2002) suggests, DRC women should be allowed access to banks and credit facilities so that they can engage in trade and commerce and hence attain economic independence/success. Access should also be extended to politics so that there is more female representation in parliament where policies are made.
Finally, those violating women and girls should remember that they are destroying the nation’s future. We are hoping for the day when all the people of DRC and the external players will say enough is enough and stop warring, end the sexual violence, pick up the pieces and build a united DRC. It is never too late. For until now, whenever “two bulls” have fought in the DRC, it has been the women and girls who suffer.
(Bathseba Opini enseigne dans le Teacher Education Program à l’Ontario Institute for Studies in Education de l’Université de Toronto. / Bathseba Opini teaches in the Teacher Education Program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.)
(Aline Nizigama est originaire du Burundi et a passé neuf ans dans le Midwest des États-Unis. Elle réside présentement à Toronto et est étudiante en dernière année du Health Policy Program à l’Université York. / Aline Nizigama is originally from Burundi and spent nine years in the Midwest of the United States as an immigrant. She currently resides in Toronto and is in her final year of the Health Policy Program at York University.)
Bibliography & Links:
Beneduce, R., L. Jourdan, T. Raeymaekers & K. Vlassenroot (2006). “Violence with a Purpose: Exploring the functions and meaning of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” Intervention 4(1): 32-46.
Caplan, G. (2008). The Betrayal of Africa. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.
Fried, S.T. (2003). “Violence against Women.” Health & Human Rights 6(2): 88-111.
Gondola, D. C. (2002). The History of Congo. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
Human Rights Watch (2002). The War within the War: Sexual violence against women and girls in Eastern Congo. New York: Human Rights Watch.
Jefferson, L.S.R. (2004). “In War as in Peace: Sexual violence and women’s status.” Health & Human Rights , 2004.
Koen, K. (2006). Claiming Space: Reconfiguring women’s roles in post-conflict situations. Occasional Paper 121, February 2006. Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies.
Nhema, G. A. (2004). “Introduction.” In A.G. Nhema (Ed.). The Quest for Peace in Africa: Transformations, democracy and public policy , pp. 11-21. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: OSSREA.
Rodriguez, C. (2007). “Sexual Violence in South Kivu, Congo.” Forced Migration Review , 2007.
Shank, L. & M.J. Schull (2000). “Rape in War: The humanitarian response.” Canadian Medical Journal Association 163(9): 1148-1149.
Suda, C. (1996). “The Centrality of Women in the Moral Teachings in African Society.” Nordic Journal of African Studies 5(2): 71-83.
Vlassenroot, K. & T. Raeymakers (2004). Conflict and Social Transformation in Eastern DR Congo. Gent: Academia Press Scientific Publishers.
Wakabi, W. (2008). “Sexual Violence Increasing in Democratic Republic of Congo.” The Lancet 371(9606): 15.
Ward, J. & M. Marsh (2006). “Sexual Violence against Women and Girls in War and Its Aftermath: Realities, responses, and required resources.” A Briefing Paper Prepared for Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond, 21-23 June 2006 Brussels (Belgium). Retrieved January 2010 from http://www.unfpa.org/emergencies/symposium06/docs/finalbrusselsbriefingpaper.pdf.