Women's bodies as a battleground: Sexual violence against women and girls during the war in the DRC

The world today is experiencing a new type of armed conflict, different from the more traditional war between nations. This report looks at sexual violence against women and girls during the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Kivu (1996-2003).

These new conflicts are characterised by the ‘privatisation’ of violence and the use of private armies, community self-defence groups and paramilitary forces, but above all by ethnically-based militias – combatants who have no regard for international agreements and protocols, who attack civilians and take them hostage. These acts of violence, which are inflicted on entire populations, very often include rape and other forms of sexual violence, both against women, and, increasingly, also against men.

In 1996, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in the Great Lakes region of Africa experienced a first war. This was in part due to internal factors but the country had also been affected by the shockwaves of the conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi, which had a significant destabilising effect on eastern DRC. These conflicts represent a real challenge in geopolitical terms; they have altered the overall military picture in Africa and have made a deep impression on the rest of the world, both because of the complex and entangled nature of the various forces present in the territories affected, and the appalling number of civilian victims.

The province of South Kivu, the focus of this study, borders on both Rwanda and Burundi, and has therefore served as the point of entry for the foreign troops who have made their way across the province in all directions since 1996. Before then, in 1994, South Kivu had received more than 1.5 million Rwandan refugees, escorted there by French troops in ‘Opération Turquoise’ after the crushing defeat of the former Rwandan army.

The military situation in this part of the DRC is extremely complex and this study briefly describes the various armed groups that are active in South Kivu, either on their own or in alliance with others, according to whatever is in their own interest at any one time.