Rape as a weapon of war in Eastern Congo

Tanya Castle, 3 November 2010


  • armed conflict
  • sexual violence
  • identity
  • DRC


This article has been written as part of an online course on Gender and Conflict Transformation

Eastern Congo’s conflict has affected women to such a degree the country has been given the title of “rape capital of the world.” Rape is a cheap, effective and easy weapon used by foreign and local armed groups as well as the Congolese national army. Rape in Congo is a “weapon of war.”

The conflict in Eastern Congo is a violent conflict fought in the bodies of women. During the almost twenty years of fighting, thousands of women and girls have been raped. On average more than 1,500 women are raped every month by armed groups in Eastern Congo and increasingly by civilians, as rape becomes the rule and not the exception.

Reasons why armed groups choose to rape

There are a variety of reasons why armed groups choose to rape women in the Congo. For the FDLR, CNDP, FARDC (Congolese army) and mayi mayi groups it is often to terrorize populations, by forcing them to flee, to control them, and to punish them for alleged support of the enemy. These rapes are often extremely violent. Women are tortured, gang raped, and mutilated by perpetrators. Sometimes after being raped they are abducted and taken into the forest to be kept as sex slaves, and for domestic tasks such as preparing food and watching clothes within the camp. These women “aid the war effort.” With certain rebel groups founded on ethnic ideology, rape can be used to “destroy the enemy.” The intent is to eradicate an ethnic group or to increase the numbers of a group.

Consequences of rape for both women and men

The widespread and systematic use of rape as a weapon of war by armed groups has led to a multitude of physical, psychological, socio-economic and socio-cultural effects. Physically, women can catch STIs, HIV/AIDS, fall pregnant, or suffer from fistulas or other complications from violent sexual acts. Psychologically women who have been raped are more likely to develop depression, anxiety, PTS, and substance abuse. Men are can be affected directly or indirectly by these medical. For example, men who were present during the rape of their wife, mother, sister or daughter are often left traumatized. Socio-economic impacts of rape are considerable for women. Women who have been raped are often unable to resume working because they are afraid to tend to their fields. This means they loose their source of income and nutrition. If fear does not hold women back, pregnancy does. Women and girls who have been raped often are forced to stop working or drop out of school to raise a child from the rape. The negative economic impacts for women and girls are compounded by the stigma that exists in Congo against rape victims. After a rape it is likely a woman or girl will be rejected by her family, leaving her to fend for herself and her children. This directly impacts the income and well-being of their family and community. Culturally, rape has destroyed the social fabric of society. Virginity and fidelity are prized in Congo, therefore women who have been raped are unable to marry while women who are married are abandoned by their husbands for their “infidelity.”

Although women are the principle victims of the conflict in Eastern Congo, men are not exempt. As discussed above, men can suffer from a variety of medical conditions as well, and indeed have been raped by armed groups also, however, to a much lesser degree. Despite the victimization of men, their traditional gender roles have been reinforced by the years of conflict in Eastern Congo. The militarization of the society has deeply affected ideas about what it means to be a “man,” and a “woman.” Men are expected to be aggressive, protective and providers while women are passive, weak and recipients. Civilian men are rarely able to fulfill the role of provider and protector over women during periods of conflict, and are left feeling emasculated. In Congo, this has translated into a greater level of violence against women and control over women. Men attempt to control women’s movement, rights and above all sexuality to reinforce their masculinity.

Impact of the official ending of the war on women’s rights.

With the end of the Second Congolese War in 2002, women’s rights did advance. Written into the country’s new Constitution was a minimum representation of 30% women in government. However, this representation of women at the top has little affect on women at the bottom. Ordinary women in Congo are treated as second-class citizens and are never given the same respect and rights as men. In Eastern Congo, women are perhaps in the worst situation because they are living in a conflict zone. This conflict as discussed, has become a war on women and leads to severe consequences for them.

It is unlikely that the position of women in Eastern Congo will be elevated and that their bodies will stop being used as battlegrounds until there is a durable peace between all of the armed groups involved. If this peace is not found soon, violence against women is likely to climb even more among the civilian population, and women’s status will fall even further.