Our bodies…their battleground
According to Amnesty International, combatants in the Democratic Republic of Congo have raped at least 40,000 women and children over the past six years.
A horrific feature of contemporary conflicts is the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Widespread rape and sexual slavery have been used to humiliate and terrorize civilians in the DRC, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Liberia, Sudan, Iraq, Chechnya, and Uganda. Rape can be used as an instrument of ethnic cleansing and genocide, and in many conflicts, girls are abducted by soldiers and forced to become their ‘wives.’ Besides having to cook, clean, wash clothes and carry ammunition, these girls are also forced into sexual slavery.
The physical and psychological consequences of sexual violence include internal wounds, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HIV/AIDS, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and increased risk of suicide.
It can take up to four operations to heal survivors’ physical injuries, and the necessary medical services are often inaccessible. For the brave women who do receive treatment, it offers them a chance to regain control of their lives.
Case Study: Democratic Republic of Congo
The 7-year war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has resulted in more deaths than any war since World War II. Despite the signing of a peace agreement in 2003 (which created a power-sharing government and gave the rebel factions a share of power in the country), the brutality of war has raged on in the country. One of the most horrific features of this conflict has been the use of sexual violence as a strategy of war by virtually all sides.
- UNIFEM Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer stated during her May 2003 visit to DRC that, "Nearly all the women interviewed in Kinshasa or in the Eastern DRC, whether at health care centers or rural villages have been victims of sexual violence and rape."
The rape of Congolese women and girls by soldiers during the war is horrifying in both the extent and the extraordinary brutality of these crimes. Rapes often occur in public, and the women were usually beaten, whipped, or otherwise physically abused by their rapists before, during, and after the assault. In many instances, women are raped multiple times, by multiple attackers. Furthermore, the rape victims were often very young or elderly, an act which violates traditional roles of protecting the young and respecting the elderly in society. The health implications of brutal sexual assault for children and the elderly are particularly severe. This is compounded by the fact that the country’s medical system has been weakened by years of war, and suffers from a shortage of trained health care providers and medicines - essential to providing rape victims with the treatment they desperately need.
- In 2004, USAID found a 12% HIV positive rate among women who had been raped in DRC; other studies show rates as high as 27% among rape survivors in the eastern DRC.
- Since October 2002, women's associations in the Uvira province have reported 5,000 cases of rape, which corresponds to 40 a day according to ReliefWeb. This figure does not include cases of rape that go unreported.
Many survivors did not seek medical help immediately because they feared social disgrace and abandonment by their husbands if they revealed that they had been raped. Ten years later, women continue to die from diseases related to the HIV/AIDS virus they were infected with during the conflict. Many women are left as the sole providers for themselves and their children, and without any means of economic survival. Survivors also continue to face devastating psychological problems.
A large number of men are also victims of rape and sexual violence, though this is reported much less frequently than the rape of women.
Want to learn more?
1. UNIFEM: WomenWarPeace:
2. World Health Organization: Gender Based Violence:
3. Refugee International - Refugee Voices: Violence Against Women and Dowry Pricing in Congolese Refugee Camps:
4. Amnesty International: Rape as a Tool of War Fact Sheet: