Activists, journalists and other longtime observers of conflict zones have begun to label systematic rape a form of terrorism in the ongoing hostilities in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The hostilities in the DRC today are the outgrowth of two successive wars in the last fifteen years. The first culminated in the takeover of the government by Laurent-Desire Kabila in 1997 (who gave the country its current name, replacing Zaire). Kabila came to power with the help of neighbors Rwanda and Uganda. Both countries came to the aid of the anti-Kabila Congolese Democratic Movement (RDC), when it began a rebellion shortly afterward. Within several years, the RDC had splintered into several groups and there were multiple factions and neighboring countries participating in multiple insurgencies.
The war officially ended in 2003, with the signing of a new constitution agreed on by rival factions in the war. Fighting continued however, especially in the eastern Congo, into which the remnants of the Rwandan conflict between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis has spilled (in 1994, Rwandan Hutus committed genocidea against the country's Tutsis; refugees of both groups fled to neighboring Congo).
Rape has been widely reported as an instrument of war in this context. At the end of each bout of battle, winning rebel or militias use systematic sexual violence against women and children, but also men, to reinforce their victory. According to the United Nations, the Congo has the worst record of sexual violence in the world.
No one is quite sure exactly why the phenomenon exists in the brutal form that it does. Tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been victims. Rape is often committed multiple times, with various instruments, resulting in pregnancies, social ostracizing, and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. The violence causes other physical damage, which is to say nothing of the psychological damage.
Associating systematic rape during armed conflict with terrorism draws attention to the fact that it is not simply a by-product of war but a strategy of armed conflict, one that is not acceptable under the rules of war.
Marc Sommers and Kathryn Birch, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, outline the impact of rape on women, men and children.
Probably no war zone in recent times has employed rape as sexual terrorism as extensively as the various military forces in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Rebecca Feeley of the Enough Project recently noted that its sickening reputation as the "rape capital of the world" overlooks rape's utility as a war weapon.
Even the anecdotal commentary is frightening. Three years ago, a Western donor official in the eastern province of Ituri shared what she'd heard from survivors about the fighting. Men and boys from one ethnic militia attacked the village of their ethnic rivals. Once there, the attackers didn't kill anyone. Instead, they raped, over a period of days, nearly everyone – males and females – in the enemy village, from infants to old people.
South of Ituri, in North and South Kivu provinces, doctors can often tell which militia raped someone by the particular type of mutilation that he or she sustained; a depraved "mark of Zorro." According to the United Nations, 27,000 sexual assaults were reported in 2006 in South Kivu Province alone. Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped in DRC since 1998.
Image courtesy of Tiggy Ridley / IRIN News . A 13-year-old girl, raped by armed men, waits for treatment in a health clinic in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, August 2006.