Nearly 200 000 women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have fallen victim to sex crimes since 1996. Very little is known about the increasing numbers of men who are falling prey to rape. The courts have sentenced some offenders, but most of them are still at large. In Goma Tuesday, Hillary Clinton, United States Secretary of State, called on the Congolese authorities to help bring the spate of sexual violence to an end.
“It was around 11 p.m. when armed men burst into Kazungu Ziwa’s hut, put a machete to his throat and yanked down his pants…” These remarks reported by The New York Times are not from a woman but a man. Mr. Ziwa, who agreed to be interviewed American journal, is a pygmy from the region of Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu. In this part of the Democratic Republic the Congo ravaged by armed conflict, rapists cannot be bothered by the sex of their victims.
Although the figures are more alarming in the case of women, of whom about 200 000 have fallen prey to sexual violence since 1996 in the same region, the rising cases of rape involving men needs some attention. “This problem was brought to my notice for the first time in April. I was at the Goma garrison to attend the trial of a woman who had been raped. I broke into cold sweat when I learnt that some men had launched a complaint for having been raped. We encouraged them to give us all the details of their story. That is how we began working on the issue,” Me Mutumba Janvier, a Congolese lawyer in Goma, told Afrik-news.com.
The three complainants were pygmies, small people who have since time immemorial lived at the heart of central African forests. The rapes took place last June. “One of them is head of his village. He claims to have been raped by several men in front of his wife and children. His entire family was also attacked and made to suffer the same torture,” added the lawyer. According to Marcel Stoessel, Head of Mission for Oxfam in Goma, the phenomenon reached alarming heights in January, during the launch of a joint Congolese and Rwandan military offensive against North Kivu rebels. It is paradoxical. “These operations were intended to protect civilian populations and not to violate their human rights,” he complained.
According to estimates from the American Bar Association, which has an office in Goma, about 10% of rape victims recorded in the month of June were men. The head of the Oxfam mission argues that although the number of male rape is proportionally lower than that of women, there has not been a sharper increase in such cases. As for the United Nations, North Kivu is the rape capital of the world.
All armed groups guilty as charged
Among the culprits are the many unruly elements within the Congolese army as well as members of the various rebel groups – the National Congress for People’s Defence (CNDP), Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – and even Mayi-Mayi militiamen, who have sometimes served as supplementary forces to the Congolese army. Three quarters of those convicted of rape, all sexes included, are in the military. For the rebels, rape is primarily a weapon of war. “They are fuelled by the spirit of destruction. They also use rape as a weapon to destabilise their victims psychologically so as to obtain total submission,” the lawyer continues. The choice of pygmy victims is in part due to their supposed magical powers. By sodomising them, the fighters aim to repossess the pygmies’ gift of invulnerability or “Kilembe”, as it is known locally.
Like women, men who are raped do not only bear signs physical pain but a psychological trauma as well. Moreover, they face social alienation. In a region where a man is naturally considered as the head of family, and where homosexuality remains a taboo, a sodomised man loses his place in society. They are mocked and rejected. “The people in my village say: ‘You’re no longer a man. Those men in the bush made you their wife.’ ” one of the men interviewed by the New York Times said. Hence the nickname “bush wives”.
A sexual violence legal clinic based in Goma and run by the American Bar Association, serves as the last beacon of hope on which male rape victims can rely. There, they are provided with lawyers who assist them with free legal help. Victims also get psychological support.
State of Impunity encourages rapists
Mr. Mutumba insists that rapists are taking advantage of the state of impunity and corruption. According to the lawyer, in one case, in which he defended a woman, he really had to beg the judge to render his ruling five months after the case had been called. The sentence shocked the lawyer. “The judge fined him only $ 100 and sentenced him to 11 months in prison, although rape is punishable by a minimum five year prison term.” Corruption within the judiciary has seen some judges accepting bribes to have people arrested for rape released.
Exemplery convictions have been handed down in some rare cases. Convicted of other crimes as well, the military men who raped pygmies have all been sentenced to life imprisonment. International pressure could also push the Congolese government to act with greater firmness. During her visit to Goma Tuesday, Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State urged President Kabila to help end the sexual violence. Mr. Kabila has since promised to apply the policy of zero tolerance with respect to sex crimes. Time will tell.