Sexual Violence in DR Congo

There is a topic that is dear to my heart that I have been thinking about writing about for some time. It is a far too silent epidemic that has ravaged the lives of countless women around the globe, but particularly in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

It is an epidemic of rape and horror, there is no other way to put it. The things I will share here are beyond comprehension. If it isn’t already a subject you are familiar with, you will likely wonder how it is that you are just learning about this now. If you’ve been aware of the struggle for years, as I have, you will wonder how this madness still continues.

The Eastern DR Congo has been at war for the past 12 years. Unlike other global conflicts, the countless deaths have largely gone unmentioned by the media. Everyone knows of the genocide in Rwanda, but far fewer are aware that this conflict spread over the border to reek havoc on DRC.

Congo is rich in minerals, void of a great deal of infrastructure, and rife with conflict.

Those minerals – tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold – that go to power our laptops, iPods, and Blackberries, have driven the continued conflict. If ever there was an uproar of concern about conflict diamonds, such precious minerals have been just as devastating in the Great Lakes region of Africa.

Within this conflict, rape has been used as a weapon of choice to destroy families, livelihoods, and the society as a whole. While DRC is not unique in seeing sexual violence increase during times of conflict, it has been taken to a new level in DRC.

To be blunt, I’ll spell it out. There have been thousands of women and children raped in DRC. Gang rapes are common place, sometimes lasting for days. Women are raped in public as a spectacle for all to see. They are raped in front of their children and husbands. Men are also forced to rape their mothers and children, leaving them also scarred and battered.

The use of extreme torture is often used as well. This includes using foreign objects such as broken bottles and rifles, sometime even firing them off inside a woman. Most recent reports have come back with incidents where gasoline was poured inside the vagina and lit on fire. The stories coming out of DRC are beyond disturbing.

And yet, they continue. They have done so for more than a decade, with limited support or intervention.

Of course sexually transmitted disease is rampant, including HIV/AIDS. Husbands often refuse to accept their wives back into their households after being sexually abused. Women are left to care for their children without support or access to viable livelihoods. Many cases are severe and leave long term reproductive challenges such as fistula, where in extreme cases women and children may have to live with a colostomy bag for the rest of their lives.

Sexual violence has also been seen to normalize and extend far beyond times of conflict. In Liberia, another country where I have the good fortune to work, this has been evident. There was a piece on the New York Times this week by Nicholas Kristof about how the violence has continued past the civil war and children have been targets, check out the video as well for this shocking case.

It is a sad and debilitating look at humanity. Rape and spousal abuse is an issue throughout the world, but what is happening in the DRC needs our attention now.

It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen over night, but we must work to address this tragedy. The week before last I attended a Senate hearing led by Senator Barbara Boxer that addressed this issue. I believe that there is hope that the Congress will begin to pay attention.

Additionally there are resources such as the Enough project, where you can learn more and see what you can do to help. There is also an organization called Raise Hope for Congo that shows you how to make a different in more ethically sound mineral extraction.

It isn’t an easy subject to digest, let alone address, but it has to be done. Thanks for learning more and creating more awareness about this issue.



To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men. – Abraham Lincoln


  1. Anonymous on May 27, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    Do you think the countless number of individuals that perform these atrocities can be counseled?

    I don’t think so… the only real solution would involve more killing… killing them. Are you willing to accept that?

  2. Ms. Miel on May 27, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Anon – I believe that the focus should be on prevention measures to stop these atrocities from occurring and recovery efforts to help families rebuild their lives.

    While I believe that a culture of anonymity must end, I also don’t believe that further violence is the answer.



  3. Anonymous on June 5, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    Miel, other than spreading awareness of the situation. What can we do to help? Is there anything I can do from home to make a difference. Obviously I can’t abandon my own children to go help others, but there must be something that can be done from here.

    One of the reasons I’m so passionate about being a good mother to my own children is that I hope they will be able to grow up to be responsible civic minded adults who feel passionately about bettering the world around us. Part of my job is to show them by example that one person can make a difference in the lives of others. We each contribute, for good or bad, no matter what we choose to do. It is becoming increasingly difficult to raise children without the ravages of violence, even in America.

    As a teacher in a middle school, I saw girls who were “abandoned” by parents to fend for themselves too much of the time. The end result was far too often addiction, abuse, and pressures to push the limits sexually.

    But I digress. My point is, Can you can think of a way to channel the “lost” energy of these girls, and boys, to help the situation? Obviously the parents would have to be liberal enough to allow their children “official” exposure to the subject, but whether parents know it or not, many kids are exposed regardless! Wouldn’t it be better for them to lose their naivety in a good cause rather than through unguided teenage experimentation or exploitation?

    Sexual violence is a problem here as well. Obviously not to the extent Miel described. I know of kids as young as infants who have been assaulted. My mom just became certified to perform exams to collect evidence and provide care to pediatric sexual assault victims. Sadly, not all perpetrators are adults…unhelped, victims can grow up with a different sense reality and normalcy and can become abusers as well, younger kids become victimized…it becomes a vicious cycle. The anger and hostility and self-loathing involved complicates things.

    So Miel, any inspired ideas?

  4. Dual Income No Kids on June 7, 2009 at 1:10 am

    Anon – Inspired ideas. That’s a tough one. The issues faced in the Congo are anything but easy, and certainly need a great deal of inspired ideas to move beyond the status quo.

    I like your idea about creating awareness among youth here, though I think it would be hard to actually implement.

    I believe that while the severity of sexual violence is much, much more extreme in DRC, like you say, it is still exists here in the states.

    And like the DRC, rape and abuse most often go unreported. If women actually stood up and took a stand we might actually begin to get somewhere. Easier said than done.

    At this point I think one of the things that can be effective is to raise the voice in terms of letters to the editor and congress alike. Senator Boxer continues to bring up sexual violence Senate hearings and it will help to have more political pressure.

    In fact, as if by divine creation, just after this post went up the first ever $7 Million dollar grant came up from USAID in eastern DRC. It won’t solve the problem, but at least there is more attention.



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