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Moving Beyond Rape as a Weapon of War in Democratic Republic of the Congo

“When I think about my family, I always wanted revenge,” said Abby, a man who was was abducted, along with his wife Kyalu, by a rebel group in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2008.

Since 1993, millions of people in DRC have lost their lives or been displaced. A household survey carried out by our team at Promundo in eastern DRC found that 70 percent of men and 80 percent of women experienced at least one conflict-related traumatic event, including displacement or death of a family member.

Abby’s and Kyalu’s story (detailed here in a video Promundo produced with GoodFight Media) follows one of those traumatic events. During their abduction, Abby was forced to do hard labor, while Kyalu was held along with other women and raped. After Abby and Kyalu escaped and returned home, Kyalu, afraid of bringing shame to her family, kept her rape a secret. Abby also struggled to recover. He said, “Finding out what they did to my wife was unbearable. I felt powerless to do anything.” Abby rejected Kyalu, sending her to live with his parents. This is a familiar case for many couples in DRC where, according to our study, 43 percent of men and almost as many women (37 percent) agree that a man should reject his wife if she has been raped.

Many men report a sense of lost manhood and shame if their wives had been raped, and, even when they do not reject their female partners, many instigate or increase physical violence against them. One husband of a rape survivor told Promundo, “I tried to live with my wife, but she lost all value as a wife. It destroyed our relationship and family life. I beat her a lot.” When a child is born of the rape, as was the case for Kyalu, the shame that a man experiences can be even greater, prompting him, and sometimes the community, to reject both his wife and her child. Abby recalls, “I felt so much frustration. I became violent with everyone around me. The trauma I felt made me crazy.”

The UN Security Council, amongst other bodies, has recognized the extent and impact of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in conflict, and acknowledges the need for measures to support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable. Many countries around the world have adopted laws and policies, accordingly. In 2006, for example, DRC adopted two laws to reduce SGBV, and in 2009 the Minister of Gender adopted a National GBV Strategy. But, violence continues, both as a result of conflict and in the home.

Indeed, while it is clear that rape has been a systemic problem related to conflict in DRC, it also critical to understand that sexual violence and other forms of violence against women are not solely attributable to combatants. According to the Promundo study, while 22 percent of women report having been forced to have sex as a part of the conflict, more than 50 percent of women report experiencing sexual violence from a husband or partner. High rates of women experience physical violence from their male partners, and high percentages of children witness and experience violence, including sexual violence, in their homes, communities and schools.

These numbers show that it is time to move beyond the conception of “rape as a weapon of war” perpetrated singularly by combatants and to understand and prevent the persistent sexual and gender-based violence that endures in post-conflict DRC. In addition, it is time for long-term programming and comprehensive support services to both aid recovery for those who have survived conflict-related and domestic SGBV, as well as to head off future violence on all fronts.

This holistic perspective and approach must be accompanied by a greater promotion of women’s empowerment in general. Our study affirms that a majority of men in DRC are resistant to gender equality, and that women have often internalized these norms as well. A huge number of men and women agree that the man should have the final word on decisions in the home and that women should tolerate violence to keep the family together. These factors, combined with economic stress due to poverty, and a lack of knowledge and communication around sexual and reproductive health (including consent and contraception) may further exacerbate the gender-based inequalities that drive violence at home.

It follows that to end sexual violence, we cannot simply react to violence that has already occurred, or that is specific to combatants; we must be proactive, and work to alter the dynamics that support violence outside of the confines of conflict as well. To do this, we must engage directly with men in communities, addressing their acceptance of the unequal power relations between women and men that normalize and perpetuate violence. Only with such an approach that starts at core inequalities can programming then begin to address other drivers of sexual and gender-based violence which are created and exacerbated by conflict, including coping with trauma, internalized norms of violence, and mental and physical health issues.

At a point when Abby himself had begun to lash out with violence, he joined a Living Peace group in DRC. Living Peace, implemented by Promundo Institut Supérieur du Lac (ISL), Benenfance, and HEAL Africa, utilizes a group therapy approach to build up non-violent coping mechanisms, rebuild healthy relationships and question violent ideas that are too often associated with manhood. He says, “For me, changing the way I lived was difficult at first,” but after sharing his pain and experiences with other men in the group, Kyalu adds, “he started talking to me differently.” Abby agrees, “The best thing that happened to me was re-establishing communication with my wife.”

While laws to prevent sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict are necessary, health services, and long-term programming to heal psychological wounds, rebuild communities, and move towards more peaceful and equal coping strategies for men and women is necessary for sustainable peace. After completing the Living Peace program, Abby confirms, “We found the love we had lost.”


Gary Barker is the director of Promundo, an international organization that works for gender equality and engaging men as full and equal caregivers. 

Alexa Hassink