As the Democratic Republic of Congo celebrates forty-nine years of independence today, it is time to make some hard choices to stop the epidemic of rape that has infected the nation like an insidious disease. Hundreds of thousands of women of all ages have been attacked and mutilated, publicly abused and often forced into sex slavery. They aren’t the only sufferers; their children are scarred by the crime, their husbands humiliated, their villages destroyed.
Some view rape as a symptom of a larger illness that afflicts the Congo, but I believe it is a disease in and of itself—one that threatens to kill the nation. Like many chronic afflictions, it will only be cured when the root causes of the illness are vigorously treated. To eliminate rape in the Congo, three difficult remedies are required.
The first course of treatment is to end the armed struggle for control of mines and other assets in the Eastern provinces of the DRC. Gang rape is used as a weapon to terrorize the populace around the mines that produce gold, tantalum, and tin and it will continue to be employed until someone conclusively defeats the various armed groups that profit from those mines. These include the FDLR (remnants of the Hutu Interahamwe that fled to the Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide), local Mayi-Mayi militia, and even rogue elements of the Congolese army itself.
Just as important is disenfranchising the businessmen and politicians both inside and outside the Congo who profit from the chaos. Non-combatant leaders of these groups, whether they be in Kinshasa, Kigali, Munich, Brussels, or Paris, must be charged with war crimes and turned over to the ICC for prosecution. Their ill-gotten gains should be confiscated and returned to the DRC.
Unfortunately, this treatment will require intervention by a well-equipped, professional armed force ready to complete the job. The Congolese army, the FARDC, is a poorly-led collection of untrained men, many of whom were “integrated” into the national army after fighting against it as members of various rebel militias. Congolese troops, upset over lack of pay, recently fired on UN forces with whom they are supposedly allied.
U.N. forces themselves are fettered by a confusing mandate and troops spread too thinly over a huge area. They recently stepped up the campaign against the FDLR, but haven’t shown much success. Retaliation from that action and a joint Congolese-Rwandan campaign earlier this year has actually increased the number of attacks against women in the region.
A competent force from the African Union, European Union, or even the United States, one that doesn’t report to those with economic interests in the region, will be necessary to complete this crucial first course of treatment.
The second stage is to prepare the patient to care for himself. The FARDC must be turned into a professional army. Soldiers need to be paid so they have less incentive to extort the civilian population. They must be taught that rape is wrong and perpetrators will be punished. The command structure must be cleaned out and corrupt officers replaced by competent leaders. Recent statements by Africom Commander William E. “Kip” Ward that the U.S. military will be working with the Congolese to raise the professionalism of their armed forces is a welcome start in that process.
The criminal justice system in the DRC needs to be strengthened as well. Steps have been taken in this direction, but much more has to happen before women can safely come forward to press charges against rapists without fear of retribution and with some hope that justice will actually be meted out. The 2006 national law criminalizing rape sounds good–the maximum penalty was doubled to 20 years and rape investigations are to be given priority–but that’s just on paper. Until there are sufficient trained policemen and women to enforce them, rapists will continue ravaging society.
The third stage of treatment will perhaps be the hardest of all. A culture of impunity has been created during the years of the rape epidemic and it will probably take many more years of interdiction and education to eradicate it. An entire generation of young men have grown up seeing violence against women as normal. They’ve been taught that it is perfectly all right to demand sex from any woman at any time and to take it by force if refused. With eighty percent of all children in this generation denied an education by the war in Congo and a million refugees still homeless while the fighting continues, there is no social infrastructure to teach them otherwise.
Support services for the victims of rape have gained traction in the last couple of years and the spotlight on their suffering grows brighter and brighter with films like “The Greatest Silence: Rape In the Congo,” “Lumo,” and Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Ruined.” Organizations like Women for Women International and Heal Africa are doing wonderful work to give these women back their lives.
But little or nothing is being done to instill a sense of shame and a core of decency to the men who commit these horrors. Until they are treated, the disease will never be cured.
The Congo that achieved freedom from Belgium in 1960 should have become the beating heart of Africa. With $25 trillion dollars in mineral wealth, more than enough potential hydroelectricity to power the continent, and vast regions of fallow land that could feed hundreds of millions of people, the DRC should be a vibrant, booming nation. It teeters instead on the brink of failed statehood; a sad shell of a nation that survives mainly due to the indomitable spirit of its people.
That spirit has survived more than a century of colonial oppression, war, and kleptocracy, but it is threatened now by the debilitating disease of rape. Unless that sickness is cured, the future of this should-be great nation is in serious doubt.