Women’s lived experiences in the Democratic Republic of Congo expose what sexual violence in conflict truly looks like, and what we must do to end it.
Sexual violence in conflict is typically framed as ‘rape as a weapon of war’. We know that combatants deliberately target women to spread fear and tear communities apart through shame and stigma. Up to 50,000 women were brutalized during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, when ‘rape camps’ formed part of an ethnic cleansing strategy. In Rwanda, an estimated 20,000 children were born as a result of rapes perpetrated during the 100-day genocide in 1994.
These atrocities still happen today. From ISIS in Iraq to Boko Haram in Nigeria, there are countless examples of abductions, sexual slavery and forced marriage being used for political or military gain. Meanwhile, women and girls live in terror and must cope with long-term trauma and ostracization.
Most women never report their ordeals. They feel shamed by the culture of silence surrounding sexual violence. Even if they want to speak up, they are let down by the lack of mechanisms for accountability and justice. This makes it hard to collate reliable data. But it’s estimated that up to 70% of women in crisis settings experience gender-based violence, compared with 1 in 3 globally.
Yet for the vast majority of survivors, their experiences of violence don’t fit the narrative of soldiers raping and pillaging. Their abusers are likely to be civilians from their own communities - probably their own partners or family members.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been described as “the rape capital of the world”. A study found the eastern province of North Kivu – an epicenter of mineral wealth and deadly militia violence – was the worst affected area. The daily realities of women enrolled in Women for Women International’s program in North Kivu confirm this.
When they enroll in our program, women are struggling to meet their families’ basic needs. The mining activity in the region fuels violence and insecurity, which is exacerbated by restrictive gender norms. Women are prevented from accessing land, income, education and healthcare. Their fragile economic status exposes them to high levels of exploitation and abuse. This takes many forms, ranging from child marriage and intimate partner violence, to engaging in paid sexual encounters in order to feed their children. Sexual violence in conflict is not just rape by militia groups.
Women are prevented from accessing land, income, education and healthcare.Their fragile economic status exposes them to high levels of exploitation and abuse.
Zawadi is one of our participants in North Kivu. She lives in the town of Rubaya, near to the largest coltan mine in DRC. In an interview before enrollment, Zawadi shared a snapshot of her life before joining our training program.
“I was born into a family of six children, three boys and three girls. I never had the opportunity to go to school, only my brothers did in our family. I am now a widow with three children of my own, and none of them are studying because I can’t afford school fees."
Since her husband died, Zawadi is the sole breadwinner of the household.
“To support my family, I have a small business selling corn flour. During the COVID-19 pandemic, my business collapsed and I could not afford to pay rent, so I relied on working in the fields for $1.50 (3,000 Congolese francs) a day. My main challenge is to support my family expenses on a day-to-day basis and pay our rent of $10 a month. That is why I have to do extra work, such as carrying luggage to the mining field from Rubaya centre. I get paid according to the weight and nature of the items, ranging from $5 (10,000 FC) per trip.
Mining is the main economic activity in Rubaya. There are two factions who want control of mining activities, which always leads to conflict. Women get harmed, killed, and raped in the process. Rubaya women are subjected to physical work such carrying luggage to the mines. Others fall into prostitution, and some are victims of violence when carrying goods to remote places.
I want to join the Women for Women International program because I want to change my life, support my family and be a model for the vulnerable women of Rubaya”.
"I want to join the Women for Women International program because I want to change my life, support my family and be a model for the vulnerable women of Rubaya."
Zawadi’s story reveals how restrictive gender norms, combined with conflict and economic insecurity, create an environment where violence against women is embedded into daily life.
It is estimated that between 500,000 and 2 million people work informally in eastern DRC’s artisanal and small-scale mines, and more than 40% are women. According to a 2012-2014 study by the World Bank and Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, 4 in 10 women involved in the sector face sexual abuse to gain access to work or basic goods, and rape is a commonplace occurrence. The research confirmed that perpetrators were largely civilians, rather than armed forces.
Data from participants of our program demonstrates how normalized gender-based violence is within civilian society in DRC. It starts at home: 57% per cent of women we work with in DRC reported experiencing spousal violence, and 62% agreed that a man can beat his wife if she refuses to have sex with him.
This is what a ‘war on women’ really looks like. Women face violence and harassment when they take part in daily activities: sheltering in their homes, fetching water, earning a living, finding food to feed their children. A recent gender analysis of the Tigray crisis in Ethiopia by International Rescue Committee revealed the widespread sexual exploitation of women and girls in exchange for small amounts of cash to buy food, with female-headed households being most affected. These abuses never make headlines.
The International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict is a critical moment to reframe the issue so that it reflects the reality of women's experience. Conflict-related sexual violence is not an isolated phenomenon specific to wartime. Like all forms of violence against women, it is rooted in social norms that cast women and girls as objects and possessions. These harmful attitudes keep women trapped in poverty and denies them opportunities and voice. Even after the fighting stops, there can be no real prospect of peace for women unless this dehumanizing system is fully dismantled.