By Mireille Tankama
It is commonplace that women and children are the most vulnerable people in war situations, hence the need for their protection. However, these vulnerable groups’ tenuous position is made even more precarious during armed conflict as they are deliberately targeted as a weapon of war, a strategy to intimidate communities. The eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is recognised as one of the world’s largest reservoirs of cobalt and significant quantities of diamonds, gold, coltan and copper; and is also classified by Margot Wallstrom (United Nations Special Representative on sexual violence in Conflict) as the rape capital of the world. Women’s rights are shrouded in silence and shame, as a result of the persistent culture of impunity and social stigma which pervades the DRC Judicial System.
The 2014 report on sexual violence published by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also confirms that the prevalence and intensity of violence in the eastern are of the highest worldwide; making the eastern region the worst place in the world to be a woman. Michael VanRooyen (Harvard Humanitarian Initiative Director) also stipulated that: ’the message is important and clear: rape (in Congo) has metastasized amid a climate of impunity, and has emerged as one of the great human crises of our time. The eastern DRC is ravaged by the cyclical violent conflicts; every day producing massive number of women and children victims of sexual violence. ‘
Members of the DRC armed forces (FARDC), armed rebel groups and members of foreign armies are the main perpetrators. They rape their sisters, mothers and daughters without any compassion. As reported by the UN Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC, the majority of victims and/or survivors are women (73%) and children (25%), who can also be victims of other atrocities, such as mutilation, forced penetration with objects, forced participation of family members in rape, gang rape and sexual slavery. Ending widespread sexual violence in eastern Congo is a critical dilemma because certain leaders bearing command responsibility are also perpetrators.
The DRC justice system is overwhelmed due to corruption, limited capacity and political interference. The lack of proper training and basic equipment constitutes a huge barrier to make significant investigations. One’s financial status also plays a role, as corruption in the judicial system and among staff can allow for some to evade justice and accountability whilst other accused of crimes are left to languish in jail without due process or access to legal counsel. After analysing the judicial system of Congo, the Human Rights Watch concludes that the only way for ending violence, impunity and corruption and protecting civilians against all kind of violations of international law in DRC is the creation of a new judicial mechanism in which Congo’s national judicial system will work in the collaboration with international judges to prosecute war crimes, crimes against human rights and genocide that have been perpetrated in eastern DRC since 1993.
Eastern Congo continues to face a worsening chronic and complex human rights crisis due to the lack of political and judicial will, and the cyclical nature of the political crisis. Armed conflict constitutes a grave breach in international Humanitarian Law and violates article 27 of the IV Geneva Convention and a grave breach in International Human rights law in terms of the Geneva Convention’s article 50, 51, 130 and 147 and the Additional Protocol of 1977. ICRC defines sexual violence as a “great suffering or serious injury to body health.” As defined by Article 147, the ICRC states that sexual violence is a direct breach, arguing that this inhumane treatment is prohibited by International Humanitarian Law.
To further complicate the crisis, international actors are known to further support the illegal exploitation of Congo’s natural resources and use it as a strategy to continue their conquest in eastern Congo. The vast natural resources of the DRC constitute both a blessing and a curse. The 2009 report of African Business magazine estimated the total mineral wealth of the DRC at $24 trillion; this means that the DRC has the capacity to develop itself without turning to international financiers and donors for assistance; some countries are interested in coltan; while others are interested in gold, cobalt…These interests explain international stakeholders ‘determination to enter eastern DRC, notwithstanding the tense and weak security situation.’ It is generally agreed that the DRC is potentially one of the richest countries in the world but its development is stultified by political crises. Currently, the DRC is ranked among the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world due to persistent armed conflict, increasing poverty, corruption, fraud… supported by the invisible actors as way to ensure continued illegal exploitation of its resources.
The DRC face to sexual violence and illegal exploitation of natural resources
The DRC has adopted numerous international conventions and laws that are geared towards protecting women’s rights whilst addressing the exploitation of natural resources. However, political interference in judicial processes hinders full application of these laws. The dictatorial political system, impunity, and widespread discrimination of women and their rights continue to impede full implementation. Moreover, conflict-related sexual based violence feeds the broader crisis concerning gender-dynamics and discrimination within Congolese society. Why is the illegal exploitation of natural resources often connected to sexual violence in eastern DRC? Sexual violence is a kind of strategy used to torture and humiliate people, in order to gain control over a specific territory and to ensure its compliance. Illegal exploitation of natural resources intended to humiliate communities, wherein women and girls are bearers of honour and men are shamed for failing to protect their women. It is used as a means of destroying community structures and easily taking benefit of their natural resources. However, while it is true that sexual violence is exacerbated due to the illegal exploitation of natural resources in eastern DRC, the prevalence of gender violence is almost always reflective of gender inequalities and power imbalances that have been in existence before the conflict.
Why are women the first victims of armed conflicts?
Since people started living in organized societies, discrimination has stemmed from power inequalities based on gender roles which fortify the domination of men and the subordination of women. That domination is manifested in physical, sexual, psychological, economic or socio-cultural abuses, perpetrated in private or public spheres. The process of gender-based violence follows women’s lifecycles and takes place in women’s lives in different aspects. This can lead to infanticide, childhood marriage and genital mutilation that develop into sexual abuse, domestic violence, legal discrimination and exploitation of widows. In the majority of cases, rape is inextricably linked to health. International statistics on rape show that one in three women is a victim of physical or sexual violence in her life. As such, gender based inequalities that develop during war time are used as a strategy by armed state and non-state actors to humiliate, terrorize, and displace women and girls. In DRC, life for most women is characterized by many forms of abuse due to gender-based customary laws which lead to impunity. Article 14 and 15 of the Third Republic’s Constitution promulgated on 18 February 2006 protects and condemns all forms of discrimination against women. However, the issue in Congolese legislation is the inapplicability of the laws
The link between the illegal exploitation of natural resources and sexual violence against women in eastern DRC has not only resulted in the continued occupation of the territories of DRC by rebel forces but has also worked as an agent for spreading diseases and death. Human rights law is violated without any legal intervention. The political and security situation in the DRC must alert the authorities to the need to clampdown on sexual violence and illegal exploitation of resources. Impunity for massive and systematic human rights violations is a historical legacy not only of the intermittent conflicts, but also of peace accords and patterns of governance.
Mieille Tankama is a volunteer in the Justice and peacebuilding programme at the IJR.