The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) experienced political instability, armed conflict and humanitarian crises from its independence from Belgian colonial rule in 1960 to its political transition in 2006. Political power struggles and coups d’état resulted in periods of conflict escalation known as the Congo Wars, occurring in 1996 and again in 1998 (Lwanzo Kasongo, 2021). Multiple factors contributed to this instability and conflict, including separatist movements, foreign interventions and exploitation of the DRC’s resources, leading to the involvement of various armed groups and neighbouring countries.

The conflict is described by some as a genocide, during which mass strategic and opportunistic incidents of rape and sexual violence were employed alongside killings to destroy communities (Chiwengo, 2008; Banwell, 2020). Conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) was prolific and affected women, men and children.

A peace agreement between warring factions was signed in 2002, leading to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Commission Vérité et Réconciliation, or CVR). The CVR was active from 2003 to 2007. Despite lasting for four years, the commission released a final report that is only 85 pages long, having suffered from ongoing conflicts, poor organisation and management, and a lack of funding (CVR, 2007).

Conflict and Prevalence of Sexual Violence

The conflict in the DRC, then Zaire, broke out just five days after it achieved its hard-fought independence from Belgium in 1960. The country entered cycles of political instability, military coups and power struggles that were founded in political, economic and ethnic factors (Young, 2006; Mamabolo, 2009). Efforts by domestic and international forces to control and pillage mineral resources further drove conflict and violence, exploiting social divisions (Ohambe et al., 2004; Mamabolo, 2009).

The conflict in the DRC is a result of interconnected crises in the broader Great Lakes region, spanning the DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda (Nowrojee, 2004). Despite being characterised as civil wars, or the Congo Wars, there was heavy external influence fanning the conflict, as well as direct participation by external actors (Ikejiaku, 2009).

Ethnic divisions were a significant source of conflict, as the country was affected by Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, which led to massive refugee movements of Hutu and then Tutsi people into the DRC. Before this, Rwanda had accused the Zaire government of meddling in the conflict, and the transfer of people further transformed local ethnic conflicts into a regional war (Mamabolo, 2009).

In 1997, Laurent Désiré Kabila became the president of the newly named DRC, overthrowing former dictator Joseph Mobutu. During his rise to power, Kabila received extensive international support, particularly from Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. Once in power, Kabila’s refusal to cooperate with these supporters led to a resurgence of rebellion, with his former allies now backing efforts to remove him from office (ibid).

The presence of numerous armed factions and their shifting alliances resulted in a complex political situation, with different groups evolving and active at different times (Ohambe et al., 2004). In addition to the Congolese government, the conflict often involved two main armies, the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD), supported by Rwandan and Burundian allies, and Maï Maï militias, allied with Rwandan and Burundian Hutu rebels. The Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) and the Interahamwe are other notable rebel groups active mostly in eastern DRC and primarily composed of Rwandan Hutu militants (Banwell, 2020).

Throughout the conflict, government forces and non-state armed groups, both domestic and international, committed war crimes, massive human rights violations and crimes against humanity, including rape and sexual violence (Nowrojee, 2004; Banwell, 2020). Furthermore, civilians as well as individuals in positions of authority and influence also engaged in rape and sexual violence, due to the prevailing culture of impunity and acceptance of violence against women and girls (Csete et al., 2002).

Sexual violence was a central part of the conflict, often perpetrated against groups of different perceived ethnic or political affiliation in order to enforce control. Looting, rape and abduction frequently occurred together, with perpetrators increasingly resorting to sexual violence as a form of retaliation when the economic situation deteriorated and looting became less fruitful. Research on CRSV in the South Kivu region identified four main types of rape: “individual rape, gang rape, rape where victims are forced to rape one another, and rape where objects are inserted into women’s vaginas” (p. 33). The rapes were often highly violent, also involving killing the victim or mutilation, which could indirectly result in death (Chiwengo, 2008). The majority of victims/survivors were between the ages of 11 and 18 (REFELA-UCLG Africa, 2018, p. 12). Men also experienced violent and deadly CRSV, including mutilation (Lewis, 2009).

Identifying the precise perpetrators is challenging as they often hid their identities from the victims/survivors or deliberately misled them. Furthermore, victims/survivors may have attributed the violence to groups they hold animosity towards. These factors contribute to the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators, who either escape accusations altogether or claim they face inaccurate ones (Csete et al., 2002).

Statistics regarding the conflict in the DRC, including CRSV, are generally limited to certain regions or time periods in the conflict. As a result, these statistics provide an incomplete understanding of the overall prevalence of such incidents. Nevertheless, they can be useful in forming an initial understanding of the extent of rape and sexual abuse. For example, in South Kivu, a province marked by significant violence, turmoil and humanitarian emergencies, around 60% of the population was displaced after the onset of war in the 1990s (Ohambe et al., 2004). In the span of the second Congo War alone, from 1998 to 2002, an estimated four million individuals lost their lives in the DRC (CFA, 2005, p. 107).

Regarding incidents of rape and sexual violence, local organisations collecting data in Uvira and Fizi territories reported a total of 1,031 cases of rape in 2002 (Ohambe et al., 2004). Furthermore, a report from July 2003 highlighted an additional 837 victims/survivors of rape in Uvira alone (ibid). Another estimate from 1999-2001 in Uvira places the number of rape victims/survivors at 3,000, although others believe this to be an underestimation (Csete et al., 2002, p. 39).

CRSV continued throughout the transition period, with reports of hundreds of thousands of women raped from 2003 to 2006 (Banwell, 2020). Together, these statistics point to a trend of sexual violence which proliferated throughout the conflict and after the peace deals, likely affecting a considerable proportion of the population.

Contributing Factors around Sexual Violence

The DRC’s poor economic situation and the dynamics around mineral resources were some of the driving factors of the conflict and of CRSV. Rape was used strategically to control geographical areas, most notably ones with access to mineral resources (Banwell, 2020, p. 63). The situation was further aggravated by reports of “predatory economic activity” in mining and trade, which involved effectively holding civilian populations hostage and subjecting them to grave human rights violations, particularly women (Ohambe et al., 2004).

The challenging economic circumstances led women to engage in foraging for resources or in farming, activities that posed risks and often exposed them to isolated or open areas where they were vulnerable to attack. High levels of poverty also led many women to engage in “survival sex work,” which made them more vulnerable to violent crime and opportunistic sexual violence, as well as lowering their social status and further increasing exposure to violence (Csete et al., 2002).

Customary law, such as the Family Code, enforces a strict gender hierarchy, subordinating women to men (Banwell, 2020). Gender norms and beliefs about sex further contribute to the perpetuation of sexual violence, with ideas like men gaining strength from sex or that having sex with a virgin can protect or cure the perpetrator from AIDS serving as motivations for such acts (Jones, 2008).

Moreover, the specific conceptualisation of masculinity within Congolese society and the military plays a role in motivating CRSV (Meger, 2010, p. 128). The military’s normalisation of rape and sexual violence, along with notions of the “sexually potent male fighter” as an ideal, can compel soldiers to commit acts of sexual violence (Banwell, 2020, p. 61; Baaz & Stern, 2009, p. 505).

Survivors of rape and sexual violence face significant stigma within Congolese society, the impact of which is both individual and collective. The victims/survivors are personally blamed for these incidents and often socially rejected and shamed. The perception of women and girls as the property of their husbands and fathers means that if they are raped, it is considered damaging and an insult to the men of the family (Jones, 2008). In response to rape or sexual violence, the family of the victim/survivor often settles with the perpetrator out of court, accepting payment or marriage as restitution (Csete et al., 2002).

These factors often motivate women not to disclose the sexual violence they experienced, even to their families (Jones, 2008). This stigmatisation also affects women’s willingness to seek medical attention, which can have significant health effects and leads to high rates of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS (Csete et al., 2002).

Gender-based violence in the DRC occurs in a variety of modes. In addition to rape and sexual violence in conflict and non-conflict settings, there are high rates of sexual exploitation, forced and early marriage, forced recruitment of child soldiers, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, labour trafficking and sex trafficking (Banwell, 2020).

The Congolese Penal Code prohibits rape and sexual assault, making it punishable by prison sentences or death (Csete et al., 2002). However, laws regarding sexual violence cannot fully address and protect rape victims/survivors as they do not recognise sodomy, rape through the insertion of objects, or marital rape as rape (Chiwengo, 2008). The DRC ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002, but laws against rape are not enforced (Banwell, 2020).

Transition and Establishment of the Truth Commission

The DRC’s transition out of conflict was a multi-year process heavily mediated by international actors. After conducting numerous summits and consultations regarding the DRC conflict, the Southern African Development Community convened an Extraordinary Summit in 1998, which called for a ceasefire, an end to all troop movements, and the initiation of peaceful political dialogue.

The structure of this summit formed the basis of the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement, which was eventually signed by all parties in August 1999, after negotiations and mediation by countries such as South Africa and Zambia. There were however many allegations of violations of this ceasefire from both sides of the conflict. The agreement included cessation of all hostilities; disarmament; a joint military commission to act as an oversight body, with representatives from each party; the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force; and political negotiations towards building national reconciliation (Mamabolo, 2009).

After many subsequent negotiations aimed at external actors and their removal from the DRC, peace talks finally began in 2002. Most notably, the DRC government and various factions, in conjunction with the UN, engaged in the Inter-Congolese Dialogue (IDC), a series of peace talks to end the conflict and organise justice processes, facilitated by Botswana and South Africa, among others (Arnould, 2016; Mangwanda, 2016). From the IDC, the Global and All-Inclusive Agreement was developed and signed, developing a transitional government.

A power-sharing agreement was established, resulting in the formation of an interim government led by Joseph Kabila after the assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila. This agreement brought together the DRC government, the Uganda-backed rebel Mouvement de Libération Congolais (MLC), Maï Maï militias, and civilians. The primary aim was to aid the transition to democracy by forming a constituent assembly, which had the responsibility of finalising the constitution and preparing for national elections scheduled for 2005 (Young, 2006; Mangwanda, 2016).

The mechanisms of justice developed and discussed in the IDC primarily included investigations and prosecutions by the ICC, but also the establishment of the CVR. One of the main contributing factors in the creation of the CVR was advocacy by civil society, including getting it on the agenda of the IDC (Arnould, 2016). However, the government was less enthusiastic about the CVR, and caused significant delays in its development and final formation (Young, 2006). Throughout the peace negotiations and the development of the CVR there was no apparent attention dedicated to CRSV and its effects.

Mandate and Scope in Respect of CRSV

The mandate of the CVR is dictated by clause five of Law No/04/018 which states that the commission’s objective is to restore truth and promote peace, justice, reparation, forgiveness and reconciliation to strengthen national unity (CVR, 2007).

The commission’s mandate states a clearly defined start date: 1960, when the country achieved independence. However, the end date is vague, with Law No/04/018 and the CVR stating that the commission will address the period up to the end of the transition, unspecified but generally accepted to be 2007.

The mandate states that political crimes, massive violations of human rights, and events which disrupt peace and justice within the DRC are to be examined by the commission, whether committed by Congolese nationals or foreigners.

Within Congolese society, the CVR is to ensure non-repetition of abuses, restore respect for human rights, embed the values of democratic culture, and result in lasting peace. The CVR’s processes involve gaining citizen support, mediating conflicts, fostering open dialogue among various actors, addressing traumas and rebuilding mutual trust among the Congolese population.

Clause eight, which expands upon the scope and responsibilities of the CVR, dictates that, in relation to massive human rights violations, particularly the rape of women and girls in times of war, the commission must receive complaints, denunciations or confessions from perpetrators and any testimony from witnesses. This is the only reference to categories of victims, which would result in special consideration of victims/survivors of CRSV.

The mandate also details the structure and operations of the CVR, including that its final report must include a summary of its activities, results and recommendations, including reforms, reparations, social and psychological care for perpetrators, avenues for continuing the work of truth and reconciliation, and other logistical elements.

Truth Commission Operations

According to its final report, the CVR (2007) consisted of two special commissions, one on truth and another on reconciliation. The special commission on truth, which included a section dedicated to violence committed against women and children, was composed of three commissioners. The special commission on reconciliation included a section on provincial and local commissions, with the participation of a variety of civil society actors, including members of women’s associations.

The report states that the CVR began its operations in 2003 with a series of workshops that involved government, combatants and civil society, drawing on international aid and legal support. Once developed, the mission and mandate of the CVR was communicated to a variety of sectors within Congolese society, including women’s organisations. In order to address the immediate concerns about peaceful interethnic coexistence and preserving the delicate negotiations for peace, the CVR organised several trips throughout the country. This first step of easing tensions was intended to restore trust and encourage cooperation with the CVR processes.

The CVR nearly achieved gender balance in its makeup, with eight women among its 21 commissioners (pp. 7-9). The board of commissioners were separated into two groups, with the staff appointed by the Composantes et Entités au Dialogue Inter Congolais, or Components and Entities of the Inter-Congolese Dialogue, and the commissioners being elected members of civil society, including religious figures and members of women’s organisations. Women are present on many of the other bodies established by the CVR, including those separated by geographical region.

There were no apparent approaches or procedures within the CVR that were gender-sensitive or specifically targeted at dealing with CRSV, either regarding the commission’s structure or its processes for dealing with victims/survivors. Apart from the presence of women as commissioners and staff and the integration of women’s organisations, there was little engagement with CRSV.

However, without proper support from the government to address its mandate, including a lack of financial, human and material resources, the CVR was unable to operate effectively (p. 22).

Truth Commission Final Report

The CVR’s findings are divided into two sections: 1960-1992 and 1993 to the “end of the transition period” (p. 6). The main category of inquiry, grave human rights violations, includes a section on politically motivated violence against women and children (p. 92).

The final report notes that in South Kivu the Interahamwe and the FDLR, as well as ‘Rasta’ militias, another small rebel group that emerged much later in the conflict, continue to kill, rape and abduct civilians with complete impunity (p. 72). The CVR states that it is incapable of intervening due to the risks to CVR personnel, as well as presumably the extent and ongoing nature of the violence.

The main achievement and focus of the CVR report seems to be its efforts at pacification, which aimed to prevent further military and interethnic conflict (p. 71). This included restoring local governance. The CVR acknowledges the existence of massive human rights abuses and the significant impact these conflicts have had on communities and individuals. Aside from its immediate actions of promoting peaceful coexistence and tolerance during elections, there were no other efforts by the CVR to gather statements and information on the experiences of people or develop programmes or initiatives for justice and reconciliation.

Although rape and sexual violence are mentioned in the mandate and there is clear evidence of their prevalence throughout the country, the lack of any tangible inquiry by the CVR led to an absence of discussion around CRSV in the final report. Because the CVR experienced significant operational challenges, it was prevented from fulfilling its mandate and performing an adequate investigation into the conflict. As a result, the CVR failed to provide substantive findings or analysis on CRSV.

Truth Commission Recommendations

The main recommendation in the CVR final report is the development of another truth commission to continue the work it was unable to complete. In the list of incomplete goals it proposes be addressed are disarming and dismantling both foreign and local armed groups and strengthening the rule of law. The CVR also recommends that the future commission process victims’/survivors’ statements, perform investigations, organise hearings, develop a reparations programme, and arrange reconciliation ceremonies (p. 74).

In addition, the CVR states that this commission’s effectiveness will rely on a more precise mandate, legal support, sufficient funds, the capacity to consider amnesty, and a structure dedicated to the implementation of recommendations (ibid).

In the final report, the CVR also directs recommendations at civil society and the international community, namely to raise awareness and support for victims/survivors and the reconciliation process, encourage the actions of the future truth commission, and provide significant financial contributions (pp. 76-77).

There are no recommendations specific to CRSV; however, the establishment of a stronger commission would provide an important opportunity for responding to the needs and demands of CRSV victims/survivors.

Implementation of the Truth Commission Recommendations

The CVR report was largely inconclusive. Aside from providing general recommendations, the CVR was unable to fulfil its mandate of uncovering truth about the violence that was committed in order to lead to an effective path forwards (Lwanzo Kasongo, 2021, p. 15).

In terms of the results of the process, the CVR appears to have been ineffectual at promoting justice and reconciliation. There have been a few convictions for sexual violence since 2011; however, they occurred only for the most horrific cases of CRSV, and many perpetrators remain unaffected (Banwell, 2020, pp. 58-59). The fighting has not ceased in the DRC, where conflicts in 2011 and 2018 saw a resurgence of rape being used as a weapon of war and terror tactic (p. 46). It is likely that these conditions contributed to the challenges faced by the CVR, as well as influencing the ability of the government and civil society to push forward with the transition process. There are no indications from the government that it is preparing to implement another truth commission.

Since the CVR, there have been other actions by the government towards supporting victims/survivors of sexual violence. In 2015, the DRC ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (REFELA-UCLG Africa, 2018, p. 12). After a further spike in sexual violence, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020 the government revised its National Strategy to Combat Gender-Based Violence to include a broader definition of sexual violence that accounts for humanitarian situations and geography (UN Women, 2020). Although this points to a new approach that could address some of the social and structural problems around sexual violence, it does not address the CRSV that occurred in the past.


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