Changing the Narrative on Sexual Violence in the DRC

This week in Strasbourg, France, the European Parliament bestows its most prestigious human rights award, the Sakharov Prize, to Dr. Denis Mukwege, who is world-renowned for the struggle to prevent rape in the war-ravaged and underdeveloped Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). A fiercely devoted gynecologic surgeon, he and his hospital have treated thousands of women whose bodies have become, in his words, a “battlefield” during decades of violence – especially in the eastern region bordering Lake Kivu and Rwanda, where millions have died and untold numbers have been brutally raped.

As Dr. Mukwege’s work is celebrated in Europe, he and his colleagues at the hospital are responding to an epidemic of unsolved rapes of very young girls and infants in the Kavumu district, just outside the South Kivu capital of Bukavu. This area is ironically near the airport that also serves MONUSCO, the largest peacekeeping operation in the world. More than 23 victims of rape between the ages of six months and 12 years have arrived at Dr. Mukwege’s hospital for emergency surgery during the past 18 months – often bleeding profusely, with their reproductive organs mutilated and shattered. I visited Panzi Hospital this past October and saw some of these tiny girls clinging intensely to their doctors – their heads buried in the arms of their beleaguered caretakers. According to witnesses, these children have been kidnapped from their homes at night, brutally assaulted, and often left on the street or in nearby fields. It is believed that a network of perpetrators is involved, but so far a thorough investigation and prosecution have proven elusive, letting the brutal sexual assaults to continue.

Meanwhile last month in the capital, Kinshasa, the Congolese President’s Personal Representative on Sexual Violence and Child Recruitment, Jeannine Mabunda addressed an assembled group of leading jurists, military magistrates, government officials, and international donor governments, including the European Union. “We need to change the narrative,” she announced. “The Democratic Republic of the Congo can no longer be known as the rape capital of the world.” Mabunda proceeded to recite the progress her government has made in supporting survivors, prosecuting perpetrators of mass sexual violence, and even sustaining the recent unprecedented conviction of a general in the Congolese Armed Forces for mass rape. Emphasizing a policy of zero-tolerance for sexual violence, the personal representative stressed that, “It’s the activities on the ground and the proximity of the justice system” to the victims that matter.

However, changing the narrative will take much more than rhetoric, as Dr. Mukwege and all those who work with him in delivering a holistic response to sexual violence well know. It will take sustained governmental and private leadership; transparent and effective investments in medical and psycho-social assistance; committed, well-trained, and properly salaried police, lawyers, and judges; and support to grassroots women’s organizations working to end stigma and discrimination. They all must be able to advocate openly and safely when they see malfunctions or malfeasance in the response to this crisis.

In order for this essential work to be successful, first responders and human rights advocates must be protected and supported. For all the global attention and local support to Dr. Mukwege and his hospital, a brazen armed assault on his household in 2012 – that took the life of his trusted bodyguard and terrified him and his family – remains unsolved, under-investigated, and unpunished. As a result, the doctor courageously continues his work in an environment of fear, essentially locked down for weeks at a time in his hospital compound, and requiring security escort whenever he travels. Sadly, this situation is not unlike dozens of other cases of murder and rape where the failure of local and national courts to investigate and prosecute serious crimes leaves communities with a deep sense of fear, insecurity, and mistrust of authorities. The ongoing impunity also fuels a vicious cycle of violence and revenge.

There are surely signs of hope and progress in the face of these horrors. Clinicians continue to work bravely to heal wounds and document injuries for those survivors who seek access to justice. Dedicated gender police work with limited resources at their disposal to investigate these crimes and collaborate with those prosecutors who are committed to ending impunity for sexual violence. But what is lacking in solving these crimes and changing the narrative is a serious investigation and prosecution strategy supported by local and national political authorities. Solving the attack on Dr. Mukwege and his household, and stopping the rapists in Kavumu, would be good next steps.

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