The Prevalence of Sexual Violence in the Context of Armed Conflicts: the Case of the DRC

History Mar 13, 2020

By Robin Kennedy

Content Warning: sexual violence


The presence of sexual violence during armed conflict is not a new phenomenon, but one that has been present for centuries; one can assume the involvement of rape in any armed conflict. Rape in the context of war has been separated from rape under other circumstances and, therefore, several independent definitions have been proposed. War rape has been defined as being committed by both combatants and non-combatants to use as a weapon of war largely characterizing modern armed conflicts, such as the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. Wartime rape has been described by Anna Maedl as a widespread human rights violation that causes significant psychological and physical suffering, as well as harm to social networks and women’s economic capacities. The Statute for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda legally defined rape as, “any act of sexual nature which is committed on a person under circumstances which are coercive,” and must be committed, “as part of widespread or systematic attack, on a civilian population; on certain catalogued discriminatory grounds.”

In recent years, the prevalence of reports of sexual violence with women as the primary victims, both in and out of wartime, is seen to be increasing. According to researchers from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project, the number of reported sexual assaults nearly doubled in the first three months of 2019 compared to that period in 2018, which they largely attributed to the increasing trend of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). However, this is not only a localized issue, as the United Nations (UN) has condemned the rape of women during conflicts in Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, Rwanda and Sudan as well. Complete statistics for the number of women subjected to sexual violence during conflict do not exist, however, because most victims do not disclose the crime. Although men are also subjected to sexual violence during conflict, there is a specific focus on the wartime rape of women as it largely stems from the broader context of women’s inequality; sexual violence is used strategically as a weapon and is not simply collateral damage of a war. In the DRC specifically, rape is currently a constant threat for women in the northeastern region where the conflict is concentrated. In 2018 and 2019, the DRC had the highest risk of sexual violence for women, which is directly related to the ongoing conflict.

This piece is an attempt to answer the following question: why is sexual violence that targets women used in armed conflict? I argue that pre-existing gender inequalities and the context of armed conflict create an environment through which sexual violence can be used as a weapon of war to inflict damage on civilians as a deliberate and coordinated strategy. We will review past literature and previous arguments put forth, followed by an introduction to the DRC and an analysis of sexual violence in the context of conflict relating to the DRC case. This analysis will address the period from 1996, the beginning of the DRC’s civil war, to the present day.

Literature Review

Due to the more recently and widely accepted view that rape during conflict is used as a specific war strategy, there are several arguments put forth to explain the heightened presence of sexual violence in conflict. Victoria Brittain puts forward that the goal of rape in conflict is to achieve an objective: the total humiliation and destruction of people seen as inferior, as well as establishing the existence of a master race. Although Brittain does not directly claim the use of sexual violence during conflict to be a weapon, she identifies it as having specific goals promoting the desires of the armed groups, such as making themselves the master race. Therefore, Brittain views wartime rape as having a specific function. Susan Brownmiller offers an interpretation similarly claiming that rape in conflict has an objective. However, she theorizies that men rape women in order to dominate and humiliate other men who they view as their enemy, rather than to have any effect on women, as Brittain claims. Thus, although both authors identify sexual violence in war as having a goal, they do not address the military nature of these goals, therefore not addressing that rape has been used specifically as a military strategy.

Sylvia Walby et al argue that rape is more common in conflict zones because of the greater presence of violence, which disrupts informal protections provided by a household and community, a lack of consistent criminal justice infrastructure and unequal gender representation in militarized zones’ decision-making. Their assessment of the reasoning behind increased sexual violence during conflict is comprehensive, addressing the military and domestic effects, and they also note the potential for using rape as a weapon of war. Similarly, Inger Skjelsbæk states that since the 1990s, focus on wartime sexual violence has increased due to the prevalence of these crimes during the Yugoslavian wars and the Rwandan Genocide. She claims there is now a relative consensus among academics that sexual violence can be used as a weapon of war; although, this is unclear as there is no set definition and this form of sexual assault must be distinguished from other forms of violence and from rape in non-war contexts.

Kris Berwouts alternatively argues that the systematic problem of rape in Central Africa does not hold its roots in the civil wars starting in the 1990s, but rather has three distinct phases. Firstly, rape began as an offshoot of the conflicts, involving reducing a woman to an object, known in the DRC as, “la chosification de la femme”; the objectification of women. Secondly, rape subsequently became a tool used to break communities and strike at its “most intimate and most vulnerable part: its womb,” and lastly, the emergence of the idea that rape is the sole human rights violation that does not decrease. Although this analysis offers insight into the role of gender inequalities and the reduction of women in sexual violence, it largely fails to address the role of rape within the conflict and the military strategy itself rather than simply being a side effect.

Introduction to the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The DRC is located in Central Africa with a population of 85 million people, over 200 ethnic groups and the capital city Kinshasa. It is rich in natural resources, with major exports of copper, cobalt and petroleum; however, authoritarianism, governmental corruption and regional conflicts have limited its ability for proper exploitation of this wealth to foster economic growth The DRC gained its independence from Belgium in 1960 with the election of President Joseph Kasavabu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba; however, this situation was short lived as Mobutu Sese Seko orchestrated a successful coup d’état in 1965, creating a one-party authoritarian state. His rule was characterized by little economic growth and extreme corruption, including embezzling the nation’s funds for personal use and coining the term “kleptocracy.” In 1997, Laurent Kabila led a rebellion with mostly Tutsi forces, overthrowing Mobutu and placing himself as President. Kabila renamed the country the DRC, having been called Zaire under Mobutu, and he soon began to arrest opposition, which undermined the perceived move to democracy. Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and succeeded by his son, Joseph Kabila. Elections were held in December 2018, placing the current President Félix Tshisekedi in power.

In order to comprehend the DRC case, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of the conflict. Following the Rwandan genocide in 1994, approximately 2 million Hutu refugees entered the DRC, followed by Laurent Kabila taking over the presidency in 1997, backed by Tutsis. The Second Congo War, involving 9 African countries, ended in 2003 with the establishment of a Transitional Government but violence continued in the eastern provinces of South and North Kivu. In addition to numerous rebel groups and the national army, Rwanda and Uganda continue to support armed groups and the UN has a massive peacekeeping presence in the DRC. This conflict gained a political dynamic when Kabila’s rebellion first occurred, but also lays on constant ethnic struggle between the Hutus and Tutsis, as well as fighting for control over natural resources.

Analysis of the topic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Since the conflict began in 1996, wartime sexual violence has infiltrated daily life in the northeastern DRC. Brittain argues that women are in a situation of crisis due to their low status, worsening economic conditions, political collapse and decades of prolonged war. Similarly, the Global Fund for Women claims rape has become endemic in the DRC due to weak government functioning, violence breaking down social norms and a destabilized society caused by the struggle over the country’s natural resources. The use of rape during armed conflicts is a multifaceted issue that many scholars have put forth various arguments for.

In order for wartime rape to be properly understood as a crime, the use of legal and human rights approaches is essential. Firstly, interest in the legal aspects of sexual violence in conflict zones has helped rape to be viewed as a weapon of war. For example, the UN has called the human rights abuse of sexual violence, “strategic,” and a, “weapon of war.” Legal statutes have now been created to prosecute war criminals for rape during conflict, such as the aforementioned International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in which rape in armed conflict was a charged crime. Having a legal process through which wartime rape is recognized as a distinct crime leads to the conceptualization of rape as an element of war itself that is a part of the outbreak of violence. A body of work was created around this concept focusing on the legal and human rights aspects of sexual violence in conflict and demanded this crime be recognized as a severe breach of human rights. The result of these works was a fundamental change in rape’s legal classification as a crime against humanity by criminal tribunals. Most importantly, war rape became equal to but distinct from other war crimes. In the case of the DRC, on July 8th, 2019, Bosco Ntaganda, a former commander in the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, became the first conviction case in the International Criminal Court of sexual crimes, including rape and sexual slavery. This conviction made clear that rape in conflict is now legally viewed as a war crime and a crime against humanity, and that its purpose is to serve the goals of the perpetrators and terrorize the populations they victimize.

A sociological perspective can also explain the purposes behind increased uses of sexual violence during armed conflict. Sociologically, there is a focus on the use of “collective rape” in war, which is, according to Jennifer L. Green, “a pattern of sexual violence perpetrated on civilians by agents of a state, political group, and/or politicized ethnic group.” An individual incident of sexual violence is different from collective rape as the latter involves a multiplicity of assaults. In this case, it is irrelevant if sexual assault is accompanied by other forms of violence; only that rape must be part of a series of widespread and systematic attacks. In a DRC specific study conducted by Marie Claire Omanyondo Ohambe, 70% of the attacks analyzed were planned. This displays an indiscriminate and systematic nature to the perpetrators use of sexual violence in war; thus, that it is part of their overall military strategy and can be defined as collective rape because of its distinguishable pattern. Additionally, Green gives a sociological definition of collective rape; that it, “is viewed as a form of, rather than an element of, political violence.” Through this understanding, sexual violence is not simply a side effect of political violence but rather a form of it; therefore, rape can be used as a strategy of war. Lastly, collective rape cases can also involve state agents, which suggests sexual violence can be used as a form of state repression in addition to military strategy.

Rape being a weapon of war has increasingly been accepted to explain the use of sexual violence in conflict. The UN has played a large role in this by defining war rape as a, “tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.” Based on this, rape during conflict is not an addition to or a side effect of large-scale violence, but rather an inherent part of it. Labelling it as a weapon of war means that mass rape is systematic and deliberately serves a purpose. Furthermore, the UN Security Council Resolution 1820 in 2008 recognized a direct relationship between the systematic use of sexual violence as an instrument of conflict and that mass rape is used as a weapon in cases of war, genocide and ethnic cleansing. In the DRC, the nature of rape has been connected to the Serbian Army’s written plan spelling out the use of rape as a way to ethnically cleanse Bosnia-Herzegovina, mirroring that sexual violence in the DRC has this systematic nature of ethnic cleansing as well.

Analysing the perspectives of victims of wartime sexual violence in the DRC aids in understanding how it is a weapon of war. In a study completed at Panzi hospital, located in South Kivu and specializing in the treatment of sexual violence survivors, the victims claimed that rape serves multiple purposes, but ultimately aims to inflict maximum levels of pain and destruction, and that any woman can be attacked as the sexual violence in this region is indiscriminate. Maedl states that, “from the victim’s perspective, sexual violence is not only part of the war, it is war,” which further promotes the conclusion that war rape is used as an inherent and strategic part of armed conflict. In addition, 68% of the women said that specific orders were given to the combatants to carry out the sexual violence and 91% claimed the perpetrators had weapons. By confirming a hierarchical structure, that rape is given as a military order and the aggressive military nature of the perpetrators, this provides evidence that rape is conducted as a military activity and that it is part of groups’ coordinated conduct. Moreover, many women are forced to perform essential tasks in addition to being sex slaves in many cases, so that these armed groups could potentially not sustain themselves without these women’s help. Therefore, the practice of rape is part of their overall survival or military strategy.

Although sexual violence in conflict is widely agreed to be used as a weapon of war, there are counter explanations to acknowledge. Firstly, there is a difference between the higher prevalence of sexual violence in conflict zones and the strategic use of rape as a weapon by combatants. Not all sexual violence occurring during armed conflict is inflicted for strategic military purposes, and because of the environment created by war, it is hard to differentiate between these. Furthermore, the exact meaning of rape as a weapon of war is still contested and not definitively agreed upon. This can partially be attributed to a lack of accurate data, especially in the DRC where sexual violence is so widespread, and the majority of women do not report it. However, as displayed previously, because of increased interest in the topic, there are multiple proposed definitions, including the UN’s published ones. Finally, although it is clear that armed groups deliberately organize and act together to commit sexual violence, in order to call this a weapon of war, the motives and aims need to be clarified.


I argue that the context of armed conflict and inherent gender inequalities create a situation where sexual violence is used as a weapon of war to inflict destruction on civilians as a purposeful and organized strategy. Rape is used by combatants during war in a deliberate systematic manner as part of their military strategy to help achieve their goals, such as controlling enemies to inflict trauma and psychological damage. Emphasizing the gender dimension of rape in war, being women’s inequality, allows an understanding of women as constant potential victims of sexual violence both in war and peace. The nature of rape clearly changes in war, as this essay supports that rape is used as a weapon of war; however, the use of sexual violence in this way is largely made possible by the gender inequalities that have always existed.

Works Cited

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Brittain, Victoria. 2002 "Calvary of the Women of Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo." Review of African Political Economy 29, no. 93/94 (2002): 595-601. JSTOR.

Central Intelligence Agency. "Democratic Republic of Congo." The World Factbook. Last modified February 2019. factbook/attachments/summaries/CG-summary.pdf.

Gray, Lucy Anna. 2019. "Forgotten Women: What does the future hold for the country that 'never turned the page of conflict'?" Independent, June 3, 2019. republic-congo-war-election-women-a8937586.html.

Green, Jennifer L. 2004. "Uncovering Collective Rape: A Comparative Study of Political Sexual Violence." International Journal of Sociology 34, no. 1 (Spring): 97-116. JSTOR.

Heywood, Andrew. 2015. Global Politics. 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. "History of the Conflict." Eastern Congo Initiative.


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Maedl, Anna. 2011. "Rape as Weapon of War in the Eastern DRC? The Victims' Perspective." Human Rights Quarterly 33, no. 1 (February 2011): 128-47. JSTOR.

Skjelsbæk, Inger. 2001. "Sexual Violence and War: Mapping Out a Complex Relationship." European Journal of International Relations 7, no. 2 (2001): 211-37.

Wakabi, Wairagala. 2019. "Ntaganda Convicted at ICC for Rape, Sexual Violence, and Murder." International Justice Monitor. Last modified July 8, 2019. and-murder/.

Walby, Sylvia, Philippa Olive, Jude Towers, Brian Francis, Sofia Strid, Andrea Krizsán, Emanuela Lombardo, Corrine May-Chahal, Suzanne Franzway, David Sugarman, Bina Agarwal, and Jo Armstrong. 2015. "Conflict Zones." In Stopping Rape: Towards a Comprehensive Policy, 173-90. Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2015. JSTOR.