By Rebecca Landy, Women’s Human Rights Coordination Group with the Democratic Republic of Congo Country Specialists
For almost two decades, armed conflict has ravaged the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). During this time, civilians have faced persistent human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including unlawful killings, rape, and sexual violence.
An October 2013 report by the Ministry of Gender stressed the high rates of sexual violence in areas of armed conflict – citing approximately 7,000 cases of sexual violence in North Kivu province in 2011 alone. As sexual violence is usually largely under-reported, the actual number is likely even higher.
November 29 marked the 8th annual International Day for Women Human Rights Defenders as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in the DRC deserve our recognition for the much-needed grassroots assistance they provide to civilians; instead their work causes them to face imminent threats of violence. They document cases of sexual violence and provide psychological, social, and legal assistance to the many survivors.
A key element in dealing with sexual violence is ending the culture of impunity.
This year’s theme for the 16 Days Campaign - From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence Against Women - underscores the link between militarism and gender violence which is a continued reality on the ground in the DRC.
It appears the on-again off-again war may have recently reached a turning point. The M23 surrendered on November 5. However, with this surrender, challenges still remain for WHRDs and civilians. Eastern Congo has long suffered from rapes and other human rights violations at the hands of other armed groups, as well as by the Congolese army itself. A peace agreement has yet to be signed by the DRC and M23, and as of this writing has been delayed indefinitely.
Perpetrators of sexual violence within the Congolese military believe that no action will be taken against them by the military or by the country’s justice system. The DRC has both military and civilian courts, yet few convictions for rape and other sexual abuse have been imposed.
However, after months of international pressure, a military trial just began against government soldiers accused of rape. Whether this will bring justice is yet to be determined, as few high-ranking soldiers seem to be among the accused and more witnesses are needed. Threats of violence discourage survivor and witnesses testimony, but courageous women human rights defenders accompany them to court.
There is a particularly severe climate of fear among WHRDs who denounce cases of sexual violence. As the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders explained in her 2010 Annual Report: “Women Human Rights Defenders are more at risk of suffering certain forms of violence and other violations, prejudice, exclusion, and repudiation than their male counterparts.”
For example, one WHRD recalled to Amnesty how members of the Congolese army visited her office in March 2013 and threatened to kill her if she continued to denounce cases of rape and sexual violence committed by the national army. WHRDs need adequate protection mechanisms and increased visibility.
Internationally, there is progress in recognizing the need for protections of WHRDs. At the U.N. General Assembly in September 2013, 133 states supported the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. The commitment includes “encouraging, supporting and protecting . . . human rights defenders, to improve the monitoring and documentation of cases of sexual violence in conflict without fear of reprisal and empower victims to access justice.” Further, on October 18, the U.N. Security Council passed a new resolution - 2122 - calling for women to be integrated into peace building.
U.S. politicians have also begun to take the critical step to help end violence against women around the world. On November 21, Rep. Schakowsky introduced the bipartisan International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), recalling in the press release her trip to the DRC where she learned about the long-term prevalence of rape as a weapon of war there.
So even though you may have taken action in the past alongside Amnesty standing up for women in the DRC, the work is certainly not done – join us during this 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence to support WHRDs in the DRC!
Your acts of solidarity will help ensure that they do not feel forgotten and their important work is acknowledged. You can also show your support by sending a letter to the Minister of Gender, Family, and Child, urging her to defend human rights defenders.