WMC Women Under Siege

#CongoWomenSpeak report: The ghost in Congo’s war machine

I’ve been reading King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild, which tells the utterly brutal colonial history of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Early on in the book, the author laments the lack of African voices on record that tell the history of the country. Instead it is a history told by the conquerors, as all history generally is. There is no shortage of evidence, however, that the Europeans who colonized the area inflicted terrors on black men and women that are stomach-sickening.

It is a legacy that I’m keeping mind as I head to the country this week with Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee and the Nobel Women’s Initiative to look at what is happening to women in the country’s never-ending conflict. There is a history of brutality that seems to be entwined with what is being perpetrated these days on women—even if it is now inflicted internally. It is also a legacy that has shifted into some very uncomfortable international relationships that allow the conflict to continue from one country to another. (What has been called “Africa’s Great War” involved 11 countries at its peak. Countless countries outside of Africa have been involved indirectly too. But more about that in a minute.) 

First stop: Kigali, Rwanda. (Lauren Wolfe)

The horrifying legacy of colonialism makes it even more critical that we now listen to—and actually hear—the voices of those suffering directly, and not speak for them.


Our plane has passed over Greece and we’ve begun the slow path south along the continent of Africa, skirting over Egypt and swooping down, down, tracing an inland eastern line toward Rwanda. Our first stop will be Kigali. A few days after that we will head to the Democratic Republic of Congo—from the memory of one genocide and into the reality of what may as well be called another.

While millions of Congolese have been killed in the fighting, specifically on this trip, we will be turning our ears to women. Because despite what politically polite journalists and politicians may stress (“Victims are not gendered”), women are specifically targeted in war here. As in Rwanda, where somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped in just 100 days, men are using their bodies as very effective weapons against hundreds of thousands of women in DRC for a very specific purpose.

I think it’s time we figured out why. Really, truly why. What is fueling such hatred and disregard of women? Why is sexualized violence being utilized so extensively here? Is it truly worse here than in other conflicts around the world and historically? What is it going to take to not only decide what it’s all about but to get key decision makers to see that too and then care enough to change it?

Our plan is to listen.

So much has been written and said about “conflict minerals.” Tribal conflicts. The after-effects of colonialism. Specific groups—M23, Mai Mai militia. Positive steps have been made on a number of these fronts. Specific rebel groups are shut down. Conflict minerals slowly become monitored. Yet rape never truly stops. So which of these various “reasons,” if any, can explain why women are being raped en masse for a second decade in DRC? What evil combination of circumstances has come about to create this unending punishment? What might we still be missing?

Is it an admixture made up of a bit from everything I named above, or is there something even bigger going on?

I’m starting to see the outlines of a large beast that I’m hoping will become clearer as we meet with women and men working on these issues on the ground.


In an excellent October 2013 Foreign Affairs article, Jason Stearns wrote about a disconnect between international so-called peace efforts and political will in DRC.

Stearns writes there has been a shift toward “stabilization” in the country in recent years—but this shift has not been matched with consistent support from Kinshasa. Peacekeepers became reactive rather than having any actual tools to “tackle instability.” (See this story about a possible attempt on the life of the one doctor known for operating on thousands of rape survivors in Congo, not to mention the dozens of major attacks on civilians that are ongoing.) Stearns described how roads that were built have fallen apart and police have been “often abusive and unpaid.” Basically, structure—infrastructure—is still lacking, as is an agreed-upon approach to bringing long-lasting peace.

An internal evaluation by UN officials, Stearns wrote, concluded that “state personnel deployed are mostly disconnected from the wishes of the local population [and are] perceived as ‘predatory,’ and the deployment of weak state agents has a counter-productive effect, reinforcing the population’s mistrust.”

Here becomes clear a snaking thread of what local vs. international governments do and do not want to have happen in the region (hint: why did it take the U.S. until only recently to call out Rwanda’s backing of M23 rebels?).

Is this the actual key to stopping the war? Ensuring that international players like the U.S. and UK finally apply meaningful diplomatic and financial pressure?

When I said above that there are some uncomfortable international relationships, I’m referring to race. There seems to be a predominant avoidance of such an admission: that race plays a factor in why women in DRC are continuing to be destroyed bodily, wholesale—aka why the West continues to avert its eyes.

So many questions, and I don’t yet have the answers. But I’m hoping to come up with some in the next couple weeks.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Follow the Nobel Women’s delegation on Twitter and Instagram at #CongoWomenSpeak and Lauren Wolfe’s tweets from the trip at @Wolfe321. For more #CongoWomenSpeak reports, click here.

More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Sexualized violence, War, Rape, Africa, Congo, DRC



Lauren Wolfe
Director, Women Under Siege
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