March eighth is International Women’s Day – a day to honor women and their contributions to society. But in many countries of the world, crimes of violence and sexual exploitation against women are a daily occurrence. One such country is the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC.
Since 1994, the DRC has suffered through five years of civil war, which claimed three million lives, followed by a period of ethnic strife that continues to this day. Among many atrocities committed by the combatants is the rape of Congolese women.
According to the UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Yakin Ertürk, who toured eastern Congo in July 2007, violence against women included “unimaginable brutality”. "Armed groups attack local communities, loot, rape, kidnap women and children and make them work as sexual slaves," Ms. Ertürk said.
Much of the violence is committed by armed groups in retaliation for local collaboration with the government or opposing groups, or for lack of cooperation. Gang rapes are common and are often committed in front of the victims’ families. Women and girls are abducted and forced to serve as both fighters and so-called “war wives”. Often they are killed or deliberately maimed.
Government security forces and the national police are as guilty of sexual assault against women as are the myriad insurgent groups active in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The government has taken little action to investigate such crimes, and the violators are rarely punished.
Last month, the international community took a positive step to help the government of the DRC combat what has become a culture of impunity that allows such horrific crimes to take place. A team of criminal investigators and military attorneys from the United States and Europe arrived in the DRC to help train the Congolese military in the investigation and prosecution of sex crimes subject to military prosecution. Using a cooperative framework established by the United Nations Mission in the Congo, the training will help to combat the scourge of sexual violence in the DRC by strengthening the capacity of the Congolese military justice system to investigate and prosecute such crimes.
“It is a moral and ethical imperative that we take action,” says Mark D. Wallace, the U.S. Representative for UN Management and Reform. “We must not forget the individual voices of the vulnerable and exploited. Let them hear from us loud and clear.”