Conflict Profile

Democratic Republic of Congo


Four women are raped every five minutes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to a study done in May 2011 by three researchers, including SUNY’s Tia Palermo. “These nationwide estimates of the incidence of rape are 26 times higher than the 15,000 conflict-related cases confirmed by the United Nations for the DRC in 2010,” says Palermo. The level of sexualized violence has received an intense amount of international focus, which has revealed the varied kinds of horrors soldiers have perpetrated against women, even while the country maintains the highest number of U.N. peacekeeping forces in the world.

The humanitarian situation in DRC, according to international relief organization Oxfam America, is also “among the worst in the world,” with 5.4 million dead since the outbreak of war in 1998, most from preventable diseases. The country is approximately the size of Western Europe—and rich with diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, and zinc, among other minerals. But instead of being a boon to the country, these resources have become the fodder for conflict as warlords, corrupt government officials, and competing ethnic groups and corporations fight to master them. Sexualized violence has become one of the choice tools in this struggle. The story of DRC is full of colonial dominance, war, and poverty—all of which has led it to become known as the rape capital of the world.

A woman named Kahindo, 20, sits at home with her two children born of rape in North Kivu, eastern Congo. Six Interahamwe soldiers kidnapped and forcibly held her in he bush for almost three years. Photo Credit: (Lynsey Addario/VII)A woman named Kahindo, 20, sits at home with her two children born of rape in North Kivu, eastern Congo. Six Interahamwe soldiers kidnapped and forcibly held her in the bush for almost three years. (Lynsey Addario/VII)

“The scale of rape over Congo’s years of war has made this crime seem more acceptable,” says Susan Bartels, the lead researcher on a 2010 study on rape in DRC from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Yakin Erturk, special rapporteur of the U.N. Human Rights Council on violence against women, said in 2008 that sexualized violence was perceived as "normal" by local communities in eastern Congo, according to the U.N.’s IRIN news service.

A multinational war involving spillover tensions between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda has led to an unstable situation since 1998, despite a peace deal made in 2003. But DRC’s history has been a violent one for decades, due in part to its mineral “curse.” Shortly after it gained independence from Belgium in 1960, its resource-rich province Katanga attempted to secede, and its army mutinied. In 1961, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was assassinated by troops loyal to army chief Joseph Mobutu. Mobutu, whose name became synonymous with corruption, seized control of the country in 1965, later renaming it Zaire. During the Cold War, he gained U.S. support by helping operations against Angola, the Soviet ally along its southwest border.

After the Cold War ended, however, the U.S. no longer had an interest in Zaire. The States aided anti-Mobutu rebels in 1997, after Rwanda invaded Zaire to flush out extremist Hutu militias. As the BBC reports, rebels took over Zaire’s capital, Kinshasa, installed Laurent Kabila as president, and called the nation the Democratic Republic of Congo. In just over a year, however, rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda wrested control from Kabila and took over much of the country’s eastern region. Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Angola tried to block the takeover. In 1999, all six countries signed a peace accord, but unrest continued. Two years later, Kabila was assassinated by a bodyguard and was succeeded by his son Joseph.

Over the next few years, a pattern of violence, peace accords, and more violence continued, with access to land and mineral wealth at the heart of the conflict. Currently, there is still much violence in the region, as well as an overwhelming amount of highly strategic mass rape.

(Click here to read photojournalist Lynsey Addario's blog entry on the difficulties of reporting on DRC's rape survivors.)

How Sexualized Violence Is Used as a Weapon of War

To humiliate: Researchers Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern write that "while sexual and other violence is often used to humiliate and intimidate, this humiliation and intimidation is much less strategic and much more complex than a combat strategy to further military/political gains." (The two interviewed soldiers for a 2010 working paper published by the Nordic Africa Institute called “The Complexity of Violence.”)  

To protect soldiers: Lisa Jackson’s 2008 documentary, “The Greatest Silence,” shows Mai Mai militia members talking about why they rape. One of them discusses how fighters rely on the “magic power” of raping a woman. Some fighters believe it fortifies them for battle. “Well, we were just abiding by the conditions of our magic potion,” said one. “We had to rape women in order to make it work, and beat the enemy.”

To terminate pregnancies: Some evidence points to perpetrators targeting pregnant women. One survivor interviewed by the BBC recounts that her rapists purposely aborted her nine-month-old fetus with objects after raping her. Other women report miscarriages following their attacks.  

To control communities, territory, or natural resources: Chloe Christman of the Enough Project's Raise Hope for Congo Campaign confirms that in a country rife with conflict over mineral wealth, rape is often targeted at women in communities in close proximity to mines and other resources. However, soldiers are so strategic about deciding whom to attack that they purposely avoid raping women in certain communities if they think that earning the group’s trust through less violence will ensure greater access to that area’s resources. Christman says armed groups are “very smart and can be very calculating” when deciding whether or not to attack, and whom. Their thinking seems to be, "Am I going to get more by raping these women or by providing the thought of protection to this community?”

To increase food insecurity: Women are targeted especially near camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) while they search for firewood or try to cultivate crops, says Christman. “Certainly there was a fear among women [in IDP camps] who I talked to of going out to collect firewood, of farming in the fields, of being attacked again,” she told WMC’s Women Under Siege. While there is the possibility that militia members are raping women who happen to be out doing these tasks, experts say that rape has repeatedly been used to procure a community’s resources in DRC, and that militia groups are strategically targeting these women.

To silence: A report from United States Institute of Peace in conjunction with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative indicates that the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a militant group that operates from Uganda to South Sudan to DRC, mutilates and sometimes kills civilians “to deter communities from disclosing LRA whereabouts.”  

“The devil made me do it”: Some Mai Mai soldiers tell interviewers that Satan provokes them to rape. Others more generally speak of acting on a sudden desire when they see a woman, and of the anonymity that allows them to commit acts they would otherwise avoid in their civilian lives. In a separate study of rape among combatants in the state’s Armed Forces of the Republic (FARDC), a team of Swedish researchers found that FARDC soldiers also differentiated between “normal” rape—to fulfill sexual “needs”—and “bad” or “evil” rape, which might entail mutilations or the abuse of children.  

To avoid violence from superiors: Mai Mai militia men tell researchers that they rape even when they don’t want to. The consequences of not committing sexualized violence, they say, would be a severe beating by their superiors.

To express frustration or anger: The Swedish researchers found that FARDC soldiers used sexualized violence as a way to alleviate or express their anger at being hungry, impoverished, or “unloved” by their wives. One soldier speaks of his suffering and how anger over the lack of resources in his life takes on the form of rape, murder, and looting. “You feel you have to do something bad,” he says. “You mix it all: sabotage, women, stealing, rip the clothes off, killing.” At least two soldiers Jackson interviews state matter-of-factly that one of the reasons rape occurs is that soldiers spend “too long” in the bush without women. Therefore, according to their logic, when they do encounter a woman, they will necessarily rape her. They use this reasoning with respect to their own personal abuse of women as well as when they describe rape committed by Hutu soldiers.

To retaliate: Women whose husbands are important figureheads in a community or support a different militia than the one invading at a given time are often raped in retaliation, says Christman.

Patterns of Violence

  • In her 2005 Ms. article, “Not Women Anymore…,” journalist Stephanie Nolen interviews a gynecologist who treats rape victims. He explains that militias have trademark methods of attack. Rwandan soldiers tend to gang rape. Burundian forces rape men along with women. The Mai Mai mutilate victims, raping them with branches or bayonets.  
  • Researchers at the Enough Project report that because there is no witness protection program in DRC, victims are often re-raped in revenge for coming forward. They add that women and girls “have even had their mouths cut off so that they ‘wont tell again.’” Perpetrators are easily able to find the women again even after arrest; those in jail often bribe guards to release them or simply break through the prison’s walls. If a rapist escapes, there is “little to no follow-up by authorities” to track him down.  
  • In 2004, then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan publicly acknowledged “clear evidence” that U.N. peacekeepers were involved in sexual abuse in the DRC. According to Nolen, those accused included blue helmets from Morocco, Nepal, South Africa, Tunisia, Pakistan, and Uruguay.  
  • The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative with USIP found that Mai Mai soldiers often smoke marijuana to decrease their fear of battle. During interviews with FARDC members by Swedish researchers, one soldier said that rape occurs in part because of widespread drug and alcohol use. Thus by decreasing combatants’ inhibitions, drugs and alcohol fuel much of the sexualized violence committed in the DRC.  
  • A study of rape in eastern Congo commissioned by Oxfam and conducted by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative shows that 60 percent of 4,311 rape victims surveyed were gang-raped by armed men. The survey also found that more than half of the assaults took place “in the supposed safety of the family home at night, often in the presence of the victim’s husband and children.” Civilians enacted less than 1 percent of rapes in 2004, the study found, but by 2008, that had gone up to 38 percent. 
  • The Harvard report found that the incidence of rape spiked during military activities. It also found that 16 percent took place in fields and almost 15 percent in the forest.  
  • Women have also suffered sexual slavery, with Harvard reporting that 12 percent of the women they surveyed had been used in that way. Some of the women said they had been held captive for years.


In May 2011, a study was published that blew all previous estimates of sexualized violence in Congo out of the water. The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, showed that 12 percent of women in Congo had been raped at least once in their lifetime and 3 percent—or about 434,000—had been raped in the one-year period before the survey, in 2006-2007. Amber Peterman of the International Food Policy Research Institute, Tia Palermo of Stony Brook University, and Caryn Bredenkamp of the World Bank extrapolated from a 2007 household survey of 3,436 Congolese women to find that in a population of 70 million people, approximately 1.8 million women had been raped. That is 1,152 women raped every day, 48 raped every hour, or four women raped every five minutes. That is about a rape a minute.  

“The shockingly high number is also seven times higher than the estimated 57,000 women raped during Sierra Leone’s entire 10-year conflict,” writes Palermo. (Click here for Palermo’s Women Under Siege post on accurately counting rape survivors.) 

Cultural Gender Attitudes

Soldiers interviewed by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative described “extremely rigid and formalized gender roles in times of both war and peace,” with women relegated to roles around the house and a few jobs to supplement the family income. Marital rape in Congo is still not a prosecutable crime. When interviewees discussed the small group of female soldiers in the conflict, they were dismissive, insisting that “even if women were wearing uniforms, their primary role was simply to cook for the men.” One Mai Mai soldier told researchers that not being married “could affect a woman’s sanity.”  

When combatants in Lisa Jackson’s documentary are asked what they would do if someone had raped their own sisters or mothers, most respond that they would rape or kill in retaliation. One soldier's response, however, shows how easily women—even family members—are viewed as objects of state power. When asked how he would react if he walked in on a female member of his family being raped, he replied surprisingly calmly. “If I knew that my sister or wife was being raped for the sake of saving the Congo,” he says, “of course I wouldn’t do anything to stop it.”  

The CIA Factbook estimates that whereas 81 percent of men are literate in one of the region’s languages, only 54 percent of women learn to read and write. The UNDP gives the DRC one of the lowest ranks in its Gender Inequality Index.

Click here to read about a November 2012 study that found deep misogyny in Congolese men's attitudes toward women at home and in war.


In Stephanie Nolen’s 2005 Ms. article, "Not Women Anymore...," she quotes a gynecologist named Dr. Denis Mukwege who is one of two doctors in the eastern Congo who performed vaginal reconstructive surgeries at the time:

They rape a woman, five or six of them at a time—but that is not enough. Then they shoot a gun into her vagina. In all my years here, I never saw anything like it... [T]o see so many raped, that shocks me, but what shocks me more is the way they are raped.

An an Oxfam/Harvard report report tells of one ordeal in which family members were forced not only to watch each other be attacked, but to attack their own kin—or be killed:

My husband and I were sleeping in our house. The children were sleeping in the house next door. The soldiers arrived and brought my daughter to our house where they raped her in the presence of my husband and me. Afterwards they demanded that my husband rape my daughter but he refused so they shot him. Then they went into the other house where they found my three sons. They killed all three of my boys. After killing them, two soldiers raped me one after the other.

One woman interviewed by the BBC relayed her rapists’ wish to violently terminate her pregnancy:

Four men took me. They all raped me. At that time, I was nine months’ pregnant. They gang-raped me and pushed sticks up my vagina—that's when my baby died—they said it was better than killing me.


  • Fistula is the tearing of a hole in the vaginal wall between the bladder and rectum or both, resulting in the leaking of urine or feces. Obstetric fistula occurs when women give birth without access to medical care, something that is common in conflict zones. Traumatic fistula, which researchers say is less common, occurs when violent rape causes the tear. Chronic incontinence is another result of sexualized violence. Since 1999, more than 15,000 victims of rape, some suffering from obstetric fistula, have been treated at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu.
  • The fear of becoming stigmatized has prevented women from seeking medical treatment for rape. Women are often rejected by their husbands after they have been raped. The Enough Project’s Christman says that often rape becomes the woman's “fault.” She has spoken to many women who have been ostracized by their communities and immediate families. Both international and local organizations are working on the ground to educate men about rape and encourage them to support rather than reject their wives following an attack.
  • HIV may become a legacy of the country’s mass rape. One doctor interviewed by the BBC said that of the women he treated for conflict-related rape between May and October of 2003, 24 percent were HIV positive. But as yet, experts have been unable to determine clearly whether HIV rates have risen overall due to rape in conflict. A recent epidemiological study found that there is “insufficient evidence” that HIV transmission increases either during conflict or in refugee populations. Published in The Lancet in 2007, the study analyzed data from Democratic Republic of Congo, southern Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Burundi. Researchers report that although rape may increase an individual survivor’s risk of contracting disease, there are not enough reliable data to show that systematic rape raises the overall prevalence of HIV in a given country. Previous studies may have been conducted poorly, or may have been skewed by geographical access restricted to urban areas with higher disease rates, according to the authors. More time-sensitive information needs to be gathered in countries experiencing conflict, they concluded.
  • Experts have observed that sexualized violence is now perceived as “normal” in the DRC—ostensibly due to years of nonstop abuse. If DRC experiences what has transpired in Darfur, another site of mass sexualized violence, the country could see an increase in civilian rape mimicking military violence.