Syndicate content

The rape of Congo

James Martone's picture

War is officially over in eastern Congo, but the violence continues.  23 year old Amani can tell you.  She was raped last year in the forests of North-Kivu by men she refers to as “rebels,” and has since given birth to a baby girl.  Then there’s 15 year old Neema who was held and repeatedly raped for a week last July outside Goma by an “older man” after being lured to his house by a classmate.  She too will give birth soon. “I want him to be imprisoned for life,” said Neema of her rapist.  “He destroyed my life and I don’t study anymore.”

     Cameraman Justin Purefoy filming displaced Congolese in Eastern Congo. Pictures © James Martone.

I met Amani and Neema at the Heal Africa Hospital and other sites in Eastern Congo as part of a WDR 2011 research mission in February.  The team was looking into the causes and consequences of this conflict that has been going on for over 15 years and killed an estimated 3.5 million people.  I was there with cameraman Justin Purefoy to film people affected by the conflict and document their stories.  The effect of massive sexual violence and overall lack of security were two of the issues we were exploring on video. The films and interviews will be published as part of the Bank’s upcoming 2011 World Development Report.

Sexual Violence without Punishment

30-year old Georgine Kalvira is a trauma counselor at the Heal Africa Hospital in Goma where Amani and Neema are being treated for their physical and emotional wounds.  She said that the men doing the raping often go free, if they are caught at all, and that the victims are in many cases rejected by their families.  Georgine confirmed what many scholars are saying: there is no way of knowing how many have been attacked: “You have visited here at Heal Africa, and you’ve seen all the victims.  And that is only here!  Go to other centers, they are full of victims, and imagine women in their homes. The homes are full of rape victims who hide themselves.”

Doctors, NGO’s and Human rights activists we met in the region say sexual violence is being carried out by armed men and civilians alike, and is indicative of a post-conflict society which isn’t getting better as fast as it should.  Rape is a constant threat to women in this part of Congo and somehow it has almost become accepted as a part of life.

“There is little justice,” said Hermeline Kahambu who represents 27 Congolese NGOs working to promote women’s welfare in North-Kivu.  “When the man is arrested for rape, he corrupts justice, and the next day you see him in the street again, and the man says to himself ‘if I rape, they are going to arrest me today but release me in a few hours!’”

     At Heal Africa children of rape survivors can stay with their mothers.


In addition to the problem of impunity, the people I spoke with also complained of corruption and in many areas a total lack of security.  All of this seems connected in a large lawless mess, where most civilians are on the losing side, particularly the women and girls.  Several armed factions are roaming the forests in Eastern Congo, with little respect for civilians and their safety.  Some are fighting a war over murky causes.  Others are bandits turning the muddy roads into traps. And winning often just means inflicting terror on the people they come across.

There are hundreds of NGOs working in Eastern Congo and it has the UN’s largest peace keeping mission watching over a fragile ceasefire.  But even with all this help, recovery seems a long way off.  Back at Heal Africa, Neema told me she’s hoping she can stay on at the hospital even after she gives birth.  She said everyone in her family except her mother doesn’t want her to return.


Submitted by Anne on
Brava to the women who told their stories. Bravo to the WB for telling their stories.

Submitted by Debbie on
It is easy to have empathy for all of the women, but having a 21 year old daughter made some of the information particularly poignant.

Submitted by Amy on
Thank you for sharing this, James.

Submitted by Sara Rich on
These hardships are real, true and worthy of the world's attention. But there are two sides to every coin and hope is certainly brewing among the people of Eastern Congo... One of the most inspiring events I've ever witnessed was the International Women's Day Parade held in Goma on March 8th, 2010. There were hundreds of women and girls from all over North Kivu, marching together in a brilliant act of solidarity and celebration. There were professional groups, religious groups, ethnic groups... it was truly amazing. For photographs and more information, feel free to visit my website.

Hi Sara, thanks for your comments, and yes, I agree there is hope. Most of the women I interviewed had hope they would eventually overcome their trauma, find work, and make better lives for their children. I am impressed by your efforts to improve education for all in North Kivu. The two schools I visited in Goma were in desperate need of repair, and teachers had not been paid in months. Your work will be much appreciated, and I will follow it on your site. Thanks. James

Submitted by Kim on
James, A very compelling story to share. Thank you for the photos and hearing the voices in eastern Congo. The news does a terrible job in telling real on-the-ground stories like this. When does the film debut?

Dear Kim, I find a lot of information in terms of personal stories on the different websites of aid organizations doing work in Eastern Congo. For example, the Heal Africa site gives testimonies of people who have suffered violence as well as of people working in the region to help. But there are many others. The UNHCR’s “Refugee News” is also a good source of information on what is happening in Eastern Congo and other conflict areas. I think our videos should be out soon. Keep on checking the blog or follow us on twitter @wbConflict for updates. Thanks for writing. James

James, sadly your blog is very accurate in the description of life in the DRC for women and girls. Having returned from there recently it is incredible that the DRC gets so little coverage in the mainstream media. We get to hear everyday, infact every hour, news ranging from Lady Gaga's latest outfit to Barak Obama's purchase of a family pet, but not about the 300,000 women & children violently raped in one of the largest countries in on the planet. Or the 4 million orphaned children. Or the 46,000 people being killed every month. My biggest concern at the moment is the UN talking about withdrawing in June this year leaving millions of vulnerable civilians unprotected and open to attack. Can the UN really make the same huge mistake twice, and just like Rwanda, pull out the troops when the people need them the most? I hope your report heightens the awareness of the current situation and other reporters pick up on the humanitarian crisis that is still ongoing in the DRC. PS - For those who wish to help the children of the DRC, children that have been raped and infected by HIV, please visit a new foundation I am involved in starting at

Jon, thanks for writing. The future of the UN peace keeping forces in DRC (MONUC) is a concern to many Congolese I spoke to. Despite the challenging environment, the blue helmets are providing some security in areas where conflict still occurs. I saw on my recent trip to North-Kivu Indian peacekeepers from MONUC’s North-Kivu Brigade also engaging in education and health promoting activities. At an IDP camp I visited on the outskirts of Rutshuru, for example, the only school for children was run by MONUC. What will happen to this school and the other MONUC, non-military activities when those forces leave is also a big question!

Submitted by Flora Mandala on
The situation in Congo is far from over. I was in Bukavu, south Kivu Congo in 2007 with my little boy (6 months at the time). My relatives there advised me not to walk after 5pm as it is dangerous. One day around 6pm a woman was walking crying with lots of blood on her attire, a man with her comforting her when we asked what’s going on, it turned out that she was raped and beaten by some drunken solders. There was nothing she could do, nowhere to turn to, the authorities would not take any action. I felt really ashamed of my nation, ashamed of saying that I am a Congolese. Another day my sister in-law had some engineers at her house changing the gate position of her fence, they had a building certificate. Soldiers came later saying the certificate was fake, and started beating the engineers, took my sister-in-law and asked for bribe or they were going to beat her too. Another day in some B & B I slept in, me and one relative were asleep, early morning around 2am, some people were trying to break-in our room. If we didn’t scream so loudly, I don’t know what would happen to us. They got scared that we would wake up other people and ran away, I couldn’t go back to sleep that night. Although the war has ended, there are still a lot of problems going on in Congo. Rich people still have their own small Army, corruption is at its highest peak, soldiers work for rich people, the authorities do not do their job, they are just there as a shadow. UN should stay there as people depend on them. God bless Congo.

Flora, Your experience sounds frightening. I was not in South-Kivu, but the Congolese I spoke with while in North-Kivu seemed to think security was better in Bukavu now than in the past. In Rutshuru last February, residents told me that bandits had been attacking and robbing vehicles traveling on roads outside the city, including vehicles of foreign aid organizations. While I was there, a French aid group reported they’d been robbed at gunpoint while driving on the road from Goma to Ruthsuru. Fortunately, no one was hurt. UNHCR ( gives weekly updates on the security situation in North-Kivu. For the week before I arrived, UNHCR reported that in Rutshuru there had been two assaults on vehicles “by armed men,” 18 cases where civilians were either arbitrarily arrested, extorted or illegally detained by “FARDC” (government forces), one case of rape, one forced marriage, two cases of beatings and one case of corruption. As you say, the crisis in Congo “is far from over.”

Submitted by Dr. Berceli on
James Martone's compelling and heart wrenching story about rape in the Congo unfortunately only touches the tip of the iceberg. Rape has long been used as a weapon and woman are primarily its victim. This type of abuse has endured for centuries and yet we still do not have in place plans to prevent this type of abuse even though we are certain it will occur. I applaud James for speaking out about this issue and hope that others will listen to this story with a caring heart so that we can begin to make changes in this behavior. Congratulations James - an excellent job on a 'hidden' subject.

Dr. Berceli, Thanks for your comment. Perhaps something to be hopeful about are the sincere attempts on the part of some Congolese I met who are dedicated to stopping the rape, through legal means and heightened awareness. Women’s rights groups in Goma and Rutshuru told me they were campaigning in villages, informing women of their rights to take legal action against anyone abusing them sexually, including their husbands. I saw medical doctors and trauma counselors at the Heal Africa Hospital in Goma accompanying their treatment for rape victims with advice on how to pursue the rapists in court. They say that some victims still refuse to pursue their rapists, often out of shame, and that those who do can face being ostracized by family as well as corrupted courts that sometimes let the rapists go free!! But they say even the few women who successfully put their rapist behind bars are making a difference in the fight against sexual violence in North-Kivu.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Despite the efforts of many grassroots organizations as well as international agencies working with rape survivors in Eastern Congo (including training of judges, creation of special police investigative units, etc), the odds are very much against a perpetrator actually being convicted and imprisoned. Why? Because it takes time and energy and money to pursue the cases and many survivors have little of these. In addition, there simply is not a fully (or even close to fully) functioning prison system in DRC - so one hears of cases where there was a conviction and the felon was sent to prison in Kinshasa (last I was in DRC, there were no prisons working in the Kivus) where he bribed his way out within two weeks. Dealing with the impunity issue is very complicated. It requires many, many parts of the governance system to be working properly. If these workd properly in the first place, there wouldn't be such a horrible armed conflict in the East. Parades and sensitization are good for helping people to undrstand the problem and can possibly help communities to destigmatize the issue and be more supportive to survivors. But much more is necessary to fix the penal system in DRC.

Submitted by Sandra on
The reporting usually talks about the Rebel forces, but the raping is going also being done by the Congolese Army and the UN forces (MUNOC). Also, the damage is not just becoming pregnant, but life-threatening injuries that can often not be fixed by the dedicated doctors and medical team in North and South Kivu. It is possible to tell which group raped the women by the method they use including using a gun and then shooting into the woman's vagina.

Sandra, Thanks for commenting. As you rightly point out, rape victims do indeed suffer life-threatening injuries, as had many of those I met in North-Kivu and doctors I met there say they will spend years trying to repair such injuries. Our videos from North-Kivu which address this issue should be out soon, so for updates please keep checking our blog or follow us on twitter @wbConflict. Thank you, James

Submitted by Lisa on
Thanks for a great article! Join the campaign Stop Rape Now!, Get Cross and show solidarity against sexual violence in conflict by uploading you crossed-arm tag gesture at:

Submitted by Abraham on
The situation in the Congo has slipped out of control a long time ago and will continue to spiral towards the utter and complete breakdown of social structure and rule of law (if the latter ever existed). The situation systemically builds on itself as violence begets more violence and further corrodes any remaining social cohesion and social sense of morality. While awareness programmes and NGO websites are needed reminders to help keep the world from forgetting what is happening, they will do little to change the situation or keep it from getting worse. I don't have the answer, but I imagine only something drastic will ever reverse this trend. Has anyone ever seen a society this destroyed recovering? I don't think there is any historical lesson or economic study to look to for guidance. When I imagine a drastic solution to reverse the system, I can only think of (1) a benign military dictatorship that forcefully returns the rule of law and stabilizes the society long enough for it to re-grow (not many examples of this happening successfully in history - esp. in Africa); or (2) a bottom-up social revolution where a critical mass is able to forcefully restore social order and begin to rebuild society by standing-up in mass to the parasites and predators that run rampant in the system - again a highly improbable scenario, given the difficulties and need for cohesive action amongst a people (the majority victims) that are now probably a minority. As the population grows, the system will likely worsen. Who is looking at this problem from the big-picture perspective?

Abraham, thank you for writing and sorry it took me so long to respond. I was trying to come up with convincing arguments as to why I think military dictatorships-benign or other-are not the answer to the situation in Congo. It’s been six months since my trip there for WDR, but I remain in more recent contact with the situation in DRC through people who continue to do good work there, and write about it. APROFIME for example, is a women’s NGO helping other women in difficulty, through literacy classes, legal aid, professional training and micro loans for small business in and around Goma. The group reports an increasing number of women learning to read and starting their own businesses, despite the difficult situation. CEREBA, another NGO, continues to assist rape victims in Goma and Rutshuru to bring their rapists to court. And people like Sara Rich are working to link North Kivu teachers with teachers internationally to create a higher quality of education for Congo’s children. I believe such positive activities will someday do away with the violence still affecting the Congo, without the help of yet another military dictatorship to clamp down on free action and free speech. Reporters at Radio Tayna--an independent station focused on pressing environmental and social issues--say the lack of security and updated equipment make their job of running the Goma-based station extremely difficult. But they say such difficulties pale in the face of the freedoms they now have to report on sensitive issues such as the ongoing violence against women and the rampant fraud and corruption in government. I don’t think any military dictatorship would allow such freedoms... Link to APROFIME: Link to Sara Rich: Link to Radio Tayna:

Submitted by Christine on
I may sound very nieve, but I just heard about what is happening in the Congo. It is absolutely disgusting. I really feel for all the women and children that have sustained just vile things. I only wish that I could do something to help them. My prayers are with them, stay strong!

Submitted by Anonymous on
Your analysis of the conflict in the Congo represents it as though there were no political and economic context for the ongoing brutality and violence against women - you mention vague "murky causes" but conspicuously fail to mention the role of resource extraction companies - largely mining companies from Canada and other rich countries - in feeding the violence through their hunger for minerals. Among the most sought-after minerals in the Congo is, of course, the coltan in our mobile phones. In neglecting this crucial economic factor linking every mobile phone user with the suffering of Congolese women in a global economy of war and resource extraction (the rape of Congo on a broader scale), you perpetuate racist constructions of senseless and incomprehensible African violence and miss an opportunity to alert readers to the very real responsibility for the ongoing crisis in the Congo that lies in the boardrooms and office towers of the mining companies, investment banks and weapons dealers that uphold the economic affluence of the Global North.

Add new comment