Women who are politically active in the DRC (or whose family members are), are being raped and sexually assaulted in a bid to silence them, says a graphic report from UK-based medical charity Freedom from Torture.

The document is unsettling to read, but for the sake of the women who have lived through such brutality and found the strength to keep on going, it’s essential that this practice of “persecutory rape”, which has been escalating since 2006, is brought to light.

Sexual violence beyond the conflict zone
Sexual violence during conflict in the DRC has been widespread for some time. What this report says is that sexual violence isn’t ‘just’ being carried out in the chaos and heat of conflict (which is not to say that men do not use it in a calculated way in that setting too). Rather, the report states that rape is being deployed as a deliberate tactic to stop women from speaking out – in the same way that governments have often jailed political dissidents, rape is being seen as an additional way of gagging those who challenge certain political agendas. After they have been attacked, women know they have scarce hope of justice and feel hopeless and powerless, just as the perpetrators intend.

According to those who have come forward to report such crimes, they were targeted because they were a member or supporter of an opposition group, a women’s rights organisation, or because of the involvement of a family member. Activities that led to their arrests included storing and distributing leaflets, banners and T-shirts and attending meetings and demonstrations. One was reportedly accused of “not respecting President Kabila”.

It’s clear that this practice strikes at the heart of efforts by Congolese women to build up civil society, and helps to create a pervasive climate of fear.

Thirty-four bore witness; Twenty-seven were mothers
When so much news coming from the DRC is about violence and war, it sometimes becomes hard to process that each of these women is an individual whose future might have been different, and who might have gone on to make a huge difference to their country. Some of them might still do, but every attempt has been made to clip their wings.

Who are these particular 34 women who had the courage to come forward and detail what happened to them? (Plenty of others will have been assaulted and been too intimidated or traumatised to tell.)

They were aged from under 21 to over 60. Eight had studied for college degrees in law, political science, psychology, marketing and business studies. Three women owned their own business, eight were traders and the others included a nurse, a physiotherapist, a seamstress and a cook. Twenty-seven were mothers.

Several of them reported sexually transmitted infections and two were diagnosed HIV positive. Another two women had become pregnant as the result of rape.

DRC map

Rape as a form of torture by the DRC’s security services
Say Freedom from Torture: “Our findings indicate that sexual violence in the conflict zone of the DRC is connected to sexual violence beyond war situations, specifically the use of rape as a form of torture by the DRC’s security services, including the army and intelligence agencies in Kinshasa and elsewhere in the country.”

“The sexual violence evidenced in this report is torture and it should be considered as such. Perpetrators must be prosecuted, the judiciary must be independent, survivors must be assisted to rebuild their lives, and the population must be educated about sexual violence and ways of supporting survivors. There is no point raising awareness of victim’s rights if there is no enforcement of the law.”

While in international law rape committed by state officials can amount to torture, in the DRC rape as an act of torture tends to go both unacknowledged and unprosecuted. The conflict in the eastern DRC is also being used as a smokescreen to mask these crimes, says the report, whereas most of these incidents are actually taking place in Kinshasa, which is in the west of the country.

“Weaknesses in the justice system, lack of resources, corruption and the impunity with which members of the security services can commit human rights violations mean that there is little progress towards justice for survivors of rape as torture, and towards prevention of such crimes in the future.”

The DRC is a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture and the associated Optional Protocol but has not complied with its reporting duties since 2005.

Freedom from Torture has called for the DRC to comply, including allowing independent monitors access to prisons and detention centres, and for there to be global recognition of the increasing problem of rape as a form of torture outside conflict zones. It has also called for the UK Home Office to take this into account in the way that it treats refugees from the DRC.

The celeb-studded Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict started today in London and is continuing tomorrow and the day after. Freedom from Torture’s point is that the focus must widen:

If sexual violence takes hold as a ‘mainstream’ way of controlling and silencing political activists and their families, so will the chance fade, yet more, of building up the civil society that might help a stable nation to emerge.

Dr. Mukwege, founder of Congo's first hospital for rape victims at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Panzi hospital has treated 40,000 women. #TimeToAct. Photo: Cameron Sinclair
Dr. Mukwege, founder of Congo’s first hospital for rape victims at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Panzi hospital has treated 40,000 women. #TimeToAct. Photo: Cameron Sinclair