BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo — Leonie Kyakimwa Wangivirwa is a petite, tired-looking woman whose life has been punctuated by violence. She bears a sizable keloid scar on her upper arm where her flesh was once badly torn during an arrest for her work educating women about their rights. This activism was inspired, in part, by her survival of multiple acts of rape: She is one of thousands and thousands of women who have been targets of sexualized violence perpetrated by men over nearly two decades in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But unlike the majority of cases reported in Western media, Wangivirwa (pictured above) was violated not only by combatants, but also by so-called “ordinary civilians.” This group includes men who have been in the military or a militia at some point but now have left or been discharged. It also includes men who have never been in armed ranks. Men who are married. Men who have children, even daughters. Men who, in some cases, are neighbors, friends, or perhaps even partners of their targets.
Wangivirwa’s story, in other words, does not fall neatly into the narrative of “rape as a weapon of war” so often used to describe the plight of women in Congo. And hers isn’t the only one.
In a recent interview, a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative in eastern Congo said there has been a drastic increase in civilian rape since 2011: More than 77 percent of all the attacks registered in 2013 were perpetrated by civilians. (UNFPA said it will release a report on the subject this month, but did not give an exact publication date.) Going back in time, a 2010 Oxfam study found that civilian rape in Congo increased 17-fold between 2004 and 2008. It’s hard to parse, however, whether such statistics mean that rape by civilians is actually on the rise or whether reporting of it is.
“It’s very hard to give an estimate,” said Sandra Sjögren, the Congo coordinator of Physicians for Human Rights, of the devastating problem of civilian rape. “It’s very big. It’s so big that the cultural components that are related aren’t even imagined.”
Sjögren, who estimates that maybe just 2 percent of women report rape in Congo, said the country’s ongoing war is being used as something of an excuse at this point — a way of gesturing toward an end to the epidemic of violence against women without recognizing how deep its roots run. “It’s easier to say the conflict has big shoulders almost because, if you blame it on the conflict, then it helps makes it look erratic: ‘If we have peace, we have no more sexualized violence,'” Sjögren said.
Other experts agree that the “weapon of war” frame is obscuring what is truly going on, and that there has been little deep analysis about what causes unrelenting violence against women. In reality, the idea that sexualized violence is somehow acceptable — or at least to be expected — has become deeply embedded in the national psyche. “There are many people that could say, ‘Yeah sexualized violence is being committed by armed groups or the Rwandans.’ But there is a lot of sexualized violence by Congolese against Congolese,” said Alejandro Sanchez of the Sexual Violence Unit of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in Congo (known as MONUSCO).
Sanchez said, too, that there is currently a “huge rise in rapes of civilians committed by civilians” and that “this is result of gender inequality roles of women. People are experiencing sexualized violence because of impunity. There is very little chance of getting justice.”
Wangivirwa was first raped in 2006, one of six women targeted by as many men, some wearing National Park uniforms, as she farmed beans in her field in Beni, about 20 miles from the border of Uganda. The men were arrested but released quickly. Fearing for her safety, Wangivirwa fled to Oicha in North Kivu province to restart her life. Three years later, however, she was raped again. While farming around 6 p.m. one evening, a group of men in civilian clothes approached her.