By Ashley Dale
It is no secret that sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is widespread in the DRC; a place that has been dubbed the rape capital of the world and one of the most dangerous places for women and girls to live. The protracted conflict has been the deadliest since World War II spanning nearly two decades and killing roughly 5.4 million people. In June 2012, the Sonke Gender Justice Network and the Institute for Mental Health of Goma implemented a survey as part of a study on sexual violence to men and women in and around Goma in the North Kivu province of the DRC. The study found that instances of SGBV rise during times of conflict. The data gathered from the survey concluded that all people in the region are subject to SGBV including men and boys with women and girls being at the highest risk for encountering SGBV at both the household level and in the field during conflict. Given these facts, it is no surprise that SGBV, particularly rape, is used without hesitation as a key weapon of war in the DRC conflict.
Children account for a large number of actors, both direct and indirect, in the ongoing conflict that has plagued the DRC since 1996. They make up a portion of ex-combatant dependents, outside actors and victims, and child soldiers perpetrating violence and are considered a special needs group (SNG) in DDR. Coupled with the widespread use of SGBV in the DRC, it seems unfathomable that children would not be affected by sexual violence in some way throughout this conflict. In fact, the truth is that children are key targets of SGBV because of their vulnerability and societal status in which they are typically dependents and have no power to make decisions. Children and young adults under the age of 25 make up roughly 60 percent of the target demographic in conflict affected countries. One startling statistic concludes that in the first half of 2012, 74 percent of sexual violence victims and survivors treated at the HEAL hospital in Goma, DRC were children. This number could be much higher since data on this subject is difficult to collect. Many victims live in fear and/or shame and do not come forward to report their abuse. The stigma surrounding SGBV, especially in Africa and particularly in the DRC because of its rampant use, makes it extremely difficult for researchers to get concrete statistics, leaving us with only estimates of the damage done.
Several preconditions typically need to be realized in order for SGBV against children in conflict to occur. First, there is usually a breakdown in governance with a lack of institutional stability; the DRC is a prime example of this being a failed state where institutional instability (and in some cases lack of specific institutions) and lack of governance is glaring. Along the same lines, corruption and absence of rule of law are typically present as well; again this is evident in the DRC. Impunity and lack of accountability are also factors which are also evident in the DRC. A prime environment for SGBV has taken shape when these preconditions mix with communities that are unable to protect themselves, stigmatizing cultural attitudes towards rape and sexual violence, and the normalization of certain behaviors.
The results of SGBV against children in conflict and under the above mentioned conditions are many. Unwanted pregnancies, STDs, HIV, incontinence, and fistula are some of the physical effects of sexual violence against children. Psychological effects include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, flash backs, and drug and alcohol abuse. Some of these psychological effects have longer-term side effects including interrupted or discontinued education, forced marriage, and limited income options (e.g. sex work). SGBV destroys the social fabric of villages in the DRC where children are often rejected by their families and/or whole communities. This in turn creates fear, trust issues, and loss of confidence of the children affected. All of these factors damage children deeply and leave them with minimal hope for recovery. SGBV against children in conflict destroys families and creates breakdown in communities which is a key motivation of combatants who perpetrate this type of violence.
It is important to understand the specific war tactics used in the DRC conflict and what groups they are inflicted upon in order to understand why several DDR processes have been implemented with little success. The newest and third DDR process was recently implemented (May 2015) in the DRC, but how affective will it be in terms of addressing child ex-combatants (child soldiers) who have suffered SGBV? What approaches, if any, will be taken to help reintegrate this specific cohort (as both outside and inside actors in the conflict) of this special needs group back into society? I will address these questions in Part 2 of this blog.