Rape is a Weapon of War: Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo by Jennifer Arnold

Rape is a Weapon of War:

Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo

by Jennifer Arnold


I decided to do my project on rape as a weapon of war in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As an area of family violence, this falls under the category of “Women and Sexual Violence.” For my project, I did a lot of research on the situation, first in Rwanda, and then in the Congo. At first, I was scared to begin researching because the task seemed so overwhelming. However, the more I watched and read, the more pulled in I found myself – especially upon discovering the close relation between Rwanda and the DRC. Throughout my research, I tried my best to listen to as many stories as I could from survivors so that I would be able to best understand what they have experienced and continue to experience. Their stories were a struggle to hear; they made me shake and cry. As much hurt as I felt for these women, I realized that there was no way for me to ever truly understand their humiliation and pain. I also tried to read from perspectives of advocates and explore the websites of advocacy groups in order to understand their work. After learning a lot, I wrote one journal entry for each of my perspectives (survivor and advocate), drawing inspiration from and taking parts of the different narratives I had listened to and read. I prefaced each entry with specific information about the conflict.

This project has been really eye-opening for me. I chose the project because I have always wanted to go to Africa, and I knew that the DRC was supposed to be one of the worst places. I had also seen Hotel Rwanda, which inspired that country choice. However, I did not realize how little I knew about the problems these women face. In fact, almost everything I wrote in this report was new information to me. I think part of the reason for this is the West’s general lack of concern for the problems. I believe that the West somehow believe that Africans are uncivilized and backwards; therefore, Africa’s problems are helpless and not considered worthy of attention. I can guarantee that if 5 million people had been murdered in Europe in the past ten years, I would know. Because of this general lack of unbiased information, the media proved to be a problem in researching. Individuals from a Western perspective wrote almost all the information I found about human rights abuses during the conflicts.  Ngwarsungu Chiwengo’s journal article “When Wounds and Corpses Fail to Speak: Narratives of Violence and Rape in Congo (DRC)” helped me see the bias present in much of the information and the media. This fact also drew my attention when I heard Svetlana speak about her recent trip the MCC/UN conference where she learned about the DRC. She said that they listened to one speaker from the DRC who said, “the media here will say the war started in 1998 but really it started in 1996.” I found this to be true in my research. Despite the biased research materials, I did find some first-person narratives, which I appreciated very much. Although they could not usually be cited for research purposes, they were very useful in my understanding and empathizing with the women, which helped me to craft my journal entries.


Until recently, rape has merely been seen as part of the collateral damage of war – something unfortunate but expected because it is just “what happens” during war. A special U.N. report on Violence Against Women recognized that rape is (and remains) one of the “least condemned war crimes throughout history, the rape of hundreds of thousands of women and children in all regions of the world has been a bitter reality” (Human Rights Watch 1). This is because rape has been portrayed as an individual act of one soldier’s uncontrollable desires.

However, rape is not merely individual – it is systematic and it is closely related to politically-motivated actions of war (Human Rights Watch 2). Perpetrators have encouraged large scale, systematic, and extremely brutal rape as a way to harm the enemy because rape destroys the threads that hold a community together. Women get rejected from their villages and abandoned by their husbands, the community gets both pained and shamed by what has happened, HIV/AIDS gets spread – a death sentence in many places of the world – and much more harm occurs. Vivian Stromburg explains that rape is a crime “in perpetuity, against survivors, their families and the communities who endure the repercussions indefinitely” (Barstow 97). Rape is a way to humiliate, silence, coerce and destroy the enemy. This is why in 2008 UN officially classified rape as a weapon of war (Family Violence Prevention Fund). Rape is a weapon of war in armed conflicts all around the world and not just in Africa as this report shows (Family Violence Prevention Fund).


  1. I.                    Background

Tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi populations in Rwanda existed since the Belgians colonized the country in the 1930s. Prior to European involvement in the country, there was no racial distinction between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples. The two groups were merely different social classes; in fact, it was possible for someone to change groups during his or her life (Valentino 178). Belgians favored the wealthier Tutsis who made up 15% of the population (Valentino 178) because of their supposedly more “European” roots and facial features (Barstow 96).

The first signs of violence occurred in 1959 when the country was undergoing the process of decolonization and democratization. After having been under the oppression of the Belgian government, the Hutu people took advantage of the opportunity to get involved in governmental affairs. When the Hutus gained control of the new government, Tutsis got forced to flee to neighboring countries. Later, between 1961 and 1967 there was much anti-Tutsi violence as refugees tried to return home to Rwanda.  During these years of violence as much as 50% of the Tutsi population fled or got forced out of Rwanda (Valentino 179).

The violence began again in 1990 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a political organization consisting of primarily Tutsi refugees living in Uganda, invaded Rwanda with the hopes of overthrowing the one-party Rwandan government and Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana. Due to the military superiority of the RPF as well as internal and international pressures, Habyarimana had to consent to a coalition government in 1992, and in early 1993, the Arusha Accords were signed, which gave the RPF 50% of positions in both the government and the military. Some Hutus felt very threatened by the Tutsis’ increased power and formed small radical groups, such as the Interahamwe, to fight the “Tutsi threat.” These groups joined together with the Coalition for the Defense of the Republic, and at some point between late 1992 and 1993, they made a conscious decision to attempt to systematically exterminate all Tutsis. On April 6, 1994 President Habyarimana’s plane got shot down supposedly by the RPF, and the president was killed; the genocide began immediately (Valentino 180-183).

Within the first two weeks of the genocide, one quarter million people were killed (Valentino 187). The genocide lasted for three months, and anywhere between 500 thousand and 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered (Valentino 187; War against Women) This is astonishing especially considering the fact that Rwanda is a country approximately the size of New Jersey (Landesman); in fact, only 25% of Tutsis survived (God Sleeps in Rwanda).


  1. II.                  Rape  

Rape was a key element of genocidal strategy. The UN Commission on Human Rights estimates that 250,000 women were raped during the genocide (God sleeps in Rwanda). Many of these women were killed or died immediately afterwards but the death toll continues to rise over time because as many as 70% of rape survivors contracted HIV and are dying from AIDS now (Landesman). For the Hutu militia, raping Tutsi women was equated with experiencing a forbidden fruit; they were supposed to be “sexually special” (Barstow 97). Women’s bodies also “symbolize[d] the future of an entire people” so rape was especially meaningful (God sleeps in Rwanda). Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, Rwanda’s minister of women and family affairs, understood the power of rape. She is responsible for instigating the systematic sexual torture and rape during the Rwandan genocide. As she stands trial for eleven war crimes (including rape as a weapon of war) at the International tribunal of Rwanda and Tanzania, many stories have come forward against Nyirmasuhuko (Landesman).


  1. III.                Current situation

Today 70% of Rwanda is female (Barstow). This is leading to major improvements for women’s rights. 50% of households are headed by females (Barstow 99). Women are more likely to be able to serve in other positions of authority – such as with the police or on a community board or in the government (God sleeps in Rwanda). The criminal tribunal for Rwanda is wrapping up, and over half of the leading perpetrators have gotten tried. They are still searching for eleven fugitives (Jallow).


  1. IV.               Journal Entry – Survivor

Dear Journal,

“Child of God” turned five today. Every year that passes, I wonder if this is the year I should tell her the story of how she was conceived, but I’m too afraid. I don’t want her to know she is the child of a rapist because I want her to know she is loved, not hated. I do love her now, I do. You know, when she was born, I couldn’t stand to look at her – she just reminded me of them…terrible, horrible memories. I did not even know whose child she was. Even though I knew it wasn’t her fault, I couldn’t overcome the pain. I used to think about killing her. When she was so little and she would cry, it forced me to remember the cries of the night the Interhamwe came – the cries of my brothers and father as they were murdered in front of me. I know many women who did kill their baby or who got an abortion, but I could never bring myself to go through with it. It didn’t seem fair to her to die because of my pain. I know that life is precious.

I am lucky “Child of God” is not the only “enfant de mauvais souvenir” in the village, nor am I the only single mom (Shattered Lives 79). There are many of us, which helps ease the burden of child-rearing. I am happy we can support each other because some of the women’s families have rejected them. All the children can play together. I worry for the future – will the community accept her and the others when they grow up, when the children discover their background? What if they are never told who is who? Maybe that is for the better.

There are just so few men around anymore. We women have to take on more roles than ever before. I wish the government had more support systems available for us, but I must go on living and working for myself and “Child of God.” I will do my very best to protect her from harm as she grows up. I hope that Rwanda can be a better place for her than for me.


Democratic Republic of the Congo

  1. I.                    Background

Once the RPF gained control of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Hutu civilians and extremists were forced to flee Rwanda (Valentino 185). Over one million Rwandan refugees entered the DRC in a single day (Chiwengo 79). In refugee camps along the borders, people began to reorganize into extremist groups. Beginning in 1996 the Rwandan government along with the help of a Congolese rebel group invaded the DRC to preemptively stop attacks against the country and to protect the Congolese Tutsi population (Csete 11). Many Hutu civilians were killed in these attacks and forced back to Rwanda if they did not flee further west into the Congo (Csete 11). Since then, more rebel groups have formed, and the fighting has continued despite cease-fires that have been signed.


  1. II.                  Rape

The United Nations has called Eastern Congo the “rape capital of the world” (Keleman), and others have deemed it a “femicide” because of the systematic use of rape as weapon of war (Ensler and Schuler Deschryver). UN officials say that Rwandans who escaped to Congo commit the worst rapes (“Rape Victims”). Many times when perpetrators rape women in the Congo, they shove or shot up objects in the woman’s vagina, causing a hole to be punctured in between the vaginal wall and rectum or bladder. This is known as fistula, and it causes the survivor to not be able to hold in any bodily fluid (War against women). Dr. Denis Mukwege is in charge of the Panzi hospital, which helps women with fistula, and he performs several surgeries each day (War against Women). These women’s communities reject them because of their condition, which only causes them greater psychological pain (Ensler and Schuler Deschryver). When raped, women tend to be afraid to speak up about the violence. This is for many reasons: probably there is not concrete data, she very likely doesn’t know the rapist(s), she is likely to be judged more harshly than the perpetrator (Human Rights Watch 5), and it is almost impossible to get a trial (Human Rights Watch 4). Unfortunately, rape has become so prevalent in the DRC that it is being normalized and cases of domestic violence are on the rise (Ensler and Schuler Deschryver).


  1. III.                Current situation

Unlike the Rwandan genocide, this war and these rapes are happening right now. There are 17,000 UN troops, but rape continues daily (“Rape Victims”). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the DRC this past August. While in the country, she promised “$17 million for medical care, counseling, economic assistance, and legal support” (Schuler Deschryver). As a woman, Clinton understands how important empowering and protecting women is to the future of the country. Because of this, she wants to try to encourage more women to become involved in mediations (Keleman); however, this is difficult because women are hesitant to share their experiences with men. While it is considered taboo to speak about rape, more women are coming forward. Although the percentage of men who are ever arrested for their crimes is tiny, more Congolese men are being caught and prosecuted (“Rape Victims”).

Much of the violence is rooted by the illegal mineral trade and rebel groups (Schuler Deschyver). For example, there are also 5,000 to 10,000 Hutu extremists who are part of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation Rwanda (FDLR) who want to “finish the job” against the Tutsis but they have not attacked Rwanda since 2001 (“Rwanda stirs”). A report released by the UN in November says that the FDLR receives support from individuals or groups in twenty-five countries across the globe. One of these influential individuals, Ignace Murwanashyaka, was arrested in Germany (UN Report).  Some reports say that Rwanda is supporting the Congolese rebels by supplying them with soldiers, although the country denies this (“Rwanda stirs”).


  1. IV.               Journal Entry – Advocate and Community Organizer

Dear Journal,

Three more women showed up at the hospital this afternoon, so much despair in their faces just like the others. In every woman I see, I am reminded of the depth of the violence here. Rape does not just take their bodies; it takes their lives – their family, their dignity, their hope, their innocence, their future. When one woman is raped, the entire community is raped. Things will never go back to “normal.” When I travel, I try to speak for these women, but I never know how much of what I say gets through. How can the West possibly understand how they suffer?

It is such a hard spot. We need their support, but at the same time, they are so far removed. Dignitaries come, and they see the women in the hospital, so they give money. I am so thankful, but the hospital exists because women are being raped every day. We need to stop the violence. The West is afraid to dig deep and treat the root causes, not just the consequences. And why should they invest in us? If things don’t change, the minerals will continue to come cheap. But at what cost? One life is too many – these women are my friends, neighbors, and family. They are mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives. Anywhere else in the world, and 5 million deaths in ten years would be front page news, but not us. How do I make them care? I have to believe that change is within our grasp or I’d fail at my job and then nothing will ever be different.

It might seem kind of ironic, but it’s the women who give me hope. When they join together to say that they will not let violence win or when they sing of God’s greatness and love, I am encouraged. These women are brave; they are determined to be stronger than hate. And because they have hope, I have hope. Their care for each other shows me that a better world is possible. I believe that these same women who lay in downstairs wondering if death would be a better option will get off their cots and work for a better future. Each woman that comes forward to tell her story makes it easier for the next woman and the next. Soon the world will listen because we will not be silent and we will not forget.



Studying the use of rape as a weapon of war can be depressing; however, there is reason to remain hopeful. This year the organization Vday has chosen to spotlight the Congo. Hassan Jallow, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, says that he is able to keep his spirit up because he does not just hear about the bad things that happened, he also learns about the “best of human nature” (Jallow). Probably most importantly, at the Panzi hospital in the DRC the women gather every day to sing praises to God (War against Women). With hope, bravery, and love, change is possible.


Works Cited

Barstow, Anne L., ed. War’s dirty secret: rape, prostitution, and other crimes against women. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim, 2000. Print.

Chiwengo, Ngwarsungu. “When Wounds and Corpses Fail to Speak: Narratives of Violence and Rape in Congo (DRC).” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. 28.1 (2008), 78-92.

Csete, Joanne. War within the war: sexual violence against women and girls in Eastern Congo. New York: Human Rights Watch, 2002. Print.

Ensler, Eve, and Christine Schuler Deschryver. “A Conversation with Eve Ensler: Femicide in the Congo.” Interview by Michele Kort. POV – Lumo. American Documentaries Inc., 18 Sept. 2007. Web. 28 Nov. 2009. <http://www.pbs.org/pov/lumo/special_ensler.php&gt;.

Family Violence Prevention Fund. The Facts on International Gender-Based Violence. Family Violence Prevention Fund. Print.

Gettleman, Jeffery. “Rape Victims Words Help Jolt Congo into Change.” New York Times. 17 Oct. 2008. Web. 28 Nov. 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/18/world/africa/18congo.html?pagewanted=1&hp&gt;.

Gettleman, Jeffery. “Rwanda stirs deadly brew of troubles in Congo.” New York Times. 3 Dec. 2008. Web. 28 Nov. 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/04/world/africa/04congo.html?_r=2&gt;.

God Sleeps in Rwanda. Dir. Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman. By Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman. Prod. Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman. Film Wranglers LLC, 2004. DVD.

Human Rights Watch global report on women’s human rights. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1995. Print.

Jallow, Hassan B. “Justice Oversees Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.” Interview by Neal Conan. NPR. 30 Nov. 2009. Radio.

Kelemen, Michele. “In War Zones, Rape is a Powerful Weapon.” All Things Considered. NPR. 21 Oct. 2009. NPR. National Public Radio. Web. 25 Nov. 2009. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=114001201&gt;.

Landesman, Peter. “A Woman’s Work.” New York Times. 15 Sept. 2009. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/15/magazine/15RWANDA.html?pagewanted=all&position=top&gt;.

Schuler Deschryver, Christine S. “Hillary’s Good Start.” Newsweek 12 Oct. 2009: 12. Print.

Shattered lives: sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996. Print.

“UN Report: Congo Rebel Network Spans 25 Countries.” Online posting. The Associated Press. National Public Radio, 25 Nov. 2009. Web. 25 Nov. 2009. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120817026&gt;.

Valentino, Benjamin A. Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the Twentieth Century (Cornell Studies in Security Affairs). New York: Cornell UP, 2004. Print.

“War Against Women: the use of rape as a weapon in Congo’s civil war.” War Against Women: the use of rape as a weapon of war in Congo’s civil war. 60 Minutes. 13 Jan. 2008. CBS News. 17 Aug. 2008. Web. 28 Nov. 2009. <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/01/11/60minutes/main3701249.shtml

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