In a move that raised hopes for a peace agreement to end nearly two years of insurgency in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the rebel group M23 surrendered to authorities in Uganda. M23 has been the dominant rebel group fighting to seize control of the Congo’s mineral resources in the latest installment of the multinational war that has devastated the region since 1998. M23 stated that their movement would adopt “purely political means” to achieve its goals and urged its fighters to disarm and demobilize. Yet they were forced to end their rebellion in the face of military victories from the Congolese army, and crumbling under international pressure, particularly action from the United Nations “intervention brigade” and Rwanda’s alleged decision to stop its rumored military support for the rebels.
At the heart of the world’s longest-running conflict has been a battle over Congo’s abundant mineral wealth, as warlords, corrupt government officials, competing ethnic groups and corporations fight to control them. Congo has more than 70% of the world’s coltan, used to make vital components of mobile phones, 30% of the planet’s diamond reserves and vast deposits of cobalt, copper and bauxite.While ten armed groups still operate and compete for access to mineral resources in Congo, M23 has been the most active group since April 2012 and represent the latest manifestation of this ongoing crisis. In April 2012, the rebels accused the government of failing to live up to the terms of their 2009 peace agreement, and took up arms in April 2012. This country has repeatedly witnessed decades characterized by patterns of violence, peace accords and continued violence.
Now that the rebels have abandoned their insurgency, the government will “make a public declaration of acceptance” and within five days, a formal peace agreement will be signed. The peace process in DRC is unique because due to years of nonstop war and abuse, sexualized violence has become normalized and impunity is the rule. Because the sex-subordination of women in society has been reinforced and defined by the conditions of endless war and war trauma in DRC, peacebuilding process must involve the participation of women.
Congolese soldiers interviewed by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative displayed “extremely rigid and formalized gender roles in times of both war and peace.” Wartime sexual violence is linked in general to sex-subordinating attitudes such that wartime rape becomes part of the larger system of sex subordination as well as part of war itself. For a country that has experienced decades of war with very few intervals, the violent subordination of women becomes synonymous with the daily conditions of living in a war zone. Furthermore, the trauma of war and exposure to violence – seeing family members killed, being personally injured or raped, or forced to witness rape – increase the likelihood of perpetrating gender-based violence. According to researchers, 59 percent of men and 73 percent of women in DRC reported at least one traumatic event due to the conflict. What is being enacted on women in DRC’s war and homes is the result of a lack of relief from constant exposure to violence as well as an extreme conception of masculinity that is synonymous with war.
Dr. Denis Mukwege is one of the only surgeons in Congo performing surgeries to repair the devastating vaginal and reproductive damage done to victims of war rape. He has stated that he’s performed thousands of reconstructive surgeries, including surgeries to remove fistulas, brought on by unique brutality of war rape in DRC. He discusses how these vicious acts of rape and sexual violence are used as a weapon of war by both government and rebel forces.
In addition, Dr. Mukwege states that child soldiers who return home grow into men are not being taught any other way to behave and have learned to live only through aggression. Among men who were forced to leave home during the conflict, 50 percent reported committing an act of gender-based violence against their female partner. Furthermore, 800,000 people have been displaced since M23’s insurgency alone – a traumatic experience characterized by economic disenfranchisement and associated with a loss of masculinity, which has contributed to widespread spousal abuse. Within the context of war, the language of power is asserted by subordination, in this case gender-based violence predominately against women and girls (though men have also been systematically raped in DRC).
The status of women within society is a key factor in the prevalence of violence against them. Post-conflict DRC must involve dissolving the sex-subordination of women that has defined this armed conflict. A certain kind of masculinity gets forged in the crucible of war that is sustained by its contrast to a subordinated femininity. This conflict has normalized sex-subordination of women in society and re-establishing the rule of law is key for women’s peace, security and protection of rights.
US special envoy Russell Feingold described the enduring instability in the DRC as “one of the toughest problems in the world”, but said “it has never seen such sustained (international) attention.” In a country in armed conflict where current law rules marital rape is not a prosecutable crime and impunity for gender-based violence is rampant, the international community must step forward to establish a new rule of law. Congolese men, women and children have all suffered unimaginable traumas but the disproportionate impact of conflict on women demands calling for women’s engagement in conflict resolution and peacebuilding.