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Ending rape as a weapon of war must start with a change of culture

By Daniel Donovan

 On 11 April 2013 representatives from the G8 nations—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Britain and the United States—pledged nearly US$ 36million of new funds to be directed to help end the plight of sexual violence as a weapon of war. The group announced its endorsement of The Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict in London, as Angelina Jolie gave a speech in support of the effort.

The following day the UN took this effort a step further and ordered an investigation into an incident of mass rape that occurred in the market town of Minova in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The UN claims to possess evidence that at least 126 rapes were carried out in the town in November of 2011 by state army forces, named the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC). Twelve senior officers from the FARDC were suspended pending the investigation. BBC News managed to secure some very chilling interviews from soldiers and victims of this atrocity. One soldier describes raping and murdering women and children because “they could not get away.” Another soldier implicates his commanding officer in ordering the atrocity against women, children and even babies as he claimed to have raped 53 women because “we could do whatever we wanted”. A woman describes being raped by several men at once. Unfortunately, incidents such as this one have become common practice in many war zones these days, especially in DR Congo.

Similar incidents took place during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as Serbian soldiers used this tactic as a weapon of war by attempting to impregnate Muslim women, most notoriously in the town of Foca where over 100 girls were kept hostage and raped daily. It is estimated that between 20-40 thousand women were raped during this conflict. In addition, it was recently recognized by the G8 initiative that rape was being used in Somalia, where both al-Shabab militants and Somali soldiers were reported to have raped women during the recent conflict.

However, at present, the DRC is by far the worst offender in cases where rape is used as a tool of war. A 2011 study estimated that almost two million women had been raped since conflict began in the DRC in the mid-1990s, with a woman being victimised at a rate of nearly one per minute. Despite this alarming track record by all sides in the virtual alphabet soup of militant groups that have ravaged the country, little justice is doled out to perpetrators. This lack of a legitimate justice system to punish sexual offenders over the last two decades has only compounded the problem, creating an epidemic scenario where rape is not frowned upon, but encouraged by soldiers and commanders alike, especially without the presence of consequences for criminals. This has created a culture among males within the ranks of armed groups to use rape for pleasure and power to create a society that lives in terror of any group that may stumble across their village. Zero consequences creates an environment that is conducive to violent sexual attacks. This is the environment that must change.

Amidst the hope of this new initiative launched by the G8, many questions still remain. First, while the outline for the program will include medical and forensic experts to collect and store evidence, as well as treat and council rape victims, there is little direction regarding a change in violent culture. With these incidents dating back to the beginning of the first war in 1996 or to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and with the plethora of cross cultural exchanges between Rwandans and Congolese, many of the people committing the rapes have seen this since they were children, creating a sense of normalcy to an act that many would consider vicious. A whole generation of people have grown up accustomed to rape and violence. With leaders often encouraging this behaviour and fellow soldiers committing the acts on a massive scale, the average soldier may associate women and rape together due to the frequency in which they have seen or participated in this practice. This needs to change.

While arrests and successful prosecution may deter some in eastern Congo from continuing these tactics against innocent victims, re-education may leave a more lasting impression. These soldiers must understand that this is not normal or accepted behaviour; otherwise the potential for stopping violent village raids like the one in Minova remains minimal.

In addition, the DRC possesses a less-than adequate justice system, filled with corruption and executive and military interference. Near constant pressure must be applied throughout the justice process to ensure successful prosecution which will translate to some semblance of justice for the victims. Unless fervently pursued, many of the perpetrators will remain free. The twelve officers implicated in the Minova case have been suspended and ordered to cooperate with officials, but none have been arrested or detained as of yet. A new justice system, perhaps on an international level, must be created to hold these criminals accountable for their crime. I wrote my Master’s thesis on the need for a UN mandated  ad hoc court for the DRC because no justice system in place, including the International Criminal Court or the local DRC court system, is capable of handling such atrocities on the scale with which they have occurred.

In the end the recognition by the G8 is a positive trend that draws the world’s attention to the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, especially in the DRC. However, these funds must be appropriated correctly to not only punish the offenders, but also teach individuals that these actions are unacceptable. Only after these two methods are used diligently will the DRC have any hope for change in the pattern of sexual violence.

Originally released by Consultancy Africa Interpreted

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