Three lessons from the Democratic Republic of Congo for the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

by 10th Jun 2014
A CARE staff member leading a training session for community volunteers in the DRC on how to raise awareness and respond to gender-based violence A CARE staff member leading a training session for community volunteers in the DRC on how to raise awareness and respond to gender-based violence © CARE/Sabine Wilke

Over recent years, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been a kind of laboratory for different initiatives to tackle impunity for war rape. Last year, the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie visited the DRC and CARE’s projects for survivors of sexual violence in North Kivu province. What are the key lessons that CARE’s Country Director in the DRC, Yawo Douvon, hopes they will take to the Global Summit on ending sexual violence?

I travelled with William Hague and Angelina Jolie to Lac Vert camp where CARE works to provide basic assistance for people who had fled the fighting. We met and spoke with survivors of sexual violence and it was evident that both Hague and Jolie were moved by what they heard and saw. A year on, Mr Hague has invited over 140 governments from around the world to what he has promised will be “the largest ever” summit on sexual violence in conflict. The focus of the summit is on tackling impunity. In this blog, I share some thoughts on lessons learned in the DRC. Political engagement here and elsewhere is welcome, but prosecutions alone will not be enough to end sexual violence.

What are the key initiatives?

  • Conflict-related sexual violence was made a central theme for the UN strategy to promote stability in the DRC. This in turn informed how MONUSCO, the UN mission in the country, organised coordination between political, peacekeeping, justice and humanitarian efforts.
  • The office of the UN’s Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict took a particular interest in the DRC. The then representative, Margot Wallstrom, visited DRC in October 2010 following mass rapes in the Walikale region, and a UN Security Council committee placed Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, a political leader of one of DRC’s Mai Mai militia groups, under sanctions for instigating acts of sexual assault, including mass rape, linked to the Walikale attacks. This was the first listing specifically for crimes of sexual violence on this UN committee. Margot Wallstrom said: “This shows that accountability for sexual violence in Congo is possible.”
  • Mobile courts were established to expand the reach of justice institutions into rural areas, bringing hearings into parts of the country which lack the local institutions to prosecute such crimes. For example, in its first 36 months of operation (from October 2009 through October 2012), a mobile gender court operating in South Kivu heard 382 cases, with 204 convictions for rape, 82 convictions for other offences, and 67 acquittals. In the Fizi mass rape trial, the court found Colonel Kibibi guilty of rape as a crime against humanity; complementing efforts by the International Criminal Court as well as bringing justice to a region of the country in which impunity for sexual violence crimes has been the norm.

Did these initiatives work?

In theory, these initiatives should have made the international and national efforts to tackle impunity more effective. In practice, the experience has been more messy and complex, with important lessons for decisions to be made at the Global Summit.


  • The rush to prosecute and focus on the worst kinds of war-rape is getting in the way of a wider strategy to prevent gender-based violence overall.

Making warzone rape a major focus of the UN’s strategy to promote ‘stability’ in the DRC meant that UN coordination on sexual violence became centred in the International Security and Stabilisation Support Strategy in support of the DRC government’s Stabilisation and Reconstruction strategy, which focuses on directing ‘stabilisation’ projects to areas deemed cleared of anti-government militias. As a consequence, some have argued that support for the humanitarian response to gender violence outside the ‘zones of stability’ was compromised.

Furthermore, all the political attention on rape as a tactic of war has distracted from a broader investment in ensuring that emergency projects respond to other forms of gender violence or the different needs of women and girls, men and boys. Indeed, the UN’s own system to assess how well projects address gender suggests that over 50% of humanitarian projects in the DRC are effectively ‘gender-blind’.


  • The push for prosecutions by the UN SRSG’s office in 2011-12 raised questions over the extent to which the safety of survivors and their communities was prioritised and addressed.

Following the arrest of Mayele, there were further rounds of violence in the Walikale region. The push for justice had not brought commensurate efforts to provide protection at the local level for the survivors that came forward or their wider community. It was only at a later stage that MONUSCO increased its presence in the Walikale region, and implemented more effective approaches to protecting civilians (eg increasing its number of forward operating bases and implementing night patrols). While an internal UN lessons learned document was reportedly prepared on this experience, it never saw the light of day.


  • While there was an increase in the number of prosecutions for gender violence, the implementation of mobile courts stretched the capacity, and tested the credibility, of the wider justice system.

Typically, donors fund mobile courts to deploy to a location for a two-week period. However, this funding does not provide for new or additional justice capacity on the ground. Rather, it involves taking the existing local justice institutions and staff away from their normal duties. The city of Goma, for example, has just one judge; the court in Bukavu was not in Bukavu for three months in 2012 as it was continuously deployed on mobile court duties. Furthermore, the mobile courts are then under pressure to deliver in a short timeframe. This risks compromising due process in the pressure to secure prosecutions. Research by Wageningen university in 2012 suggested that around 50% of the convictions by mobile courts that they reviewed were based on insufficient evidence.

Colonel Toussaint Muntazini, who is responsible for overseeing the military court systems, has called for investment in reform of the security and justice sectors from a system-wide perspective: “Ad-hoc interventions can be helpful, but they are only addressing the symptoms. What is required is structural reform of the security and justice sectors.”

So what can we learn?

  • Firstly, strategies adopted at the summit in London need to look beyond impunity to address the wider political and conflict dynamics in which this violence occurs. The British Foreign Office is reportedly reaching out both to governments affected by conflict and to other donor nations to try to support country-owned strategies on sexual violence in specific countries. The summit needs to support this approach.
  • Secondly, the DRC experience underscores the importance of putting survivors’ safety at the centre of efforts to prosecute sexual violence. While we do not exactly know what kinds of repercussion or further violence the people of Walikale were subjected to, we do know that this was not sufficiently factored into the push for prosecutions in 2011/12. The adoption of a new International Protocol on documenting and prosecuting these crimes and its implementation after the summit need to prioritise this every step of the way.
  • Thirdly, beyond impunity, the summit needs to result in increased support for the basic life-saving medical and other needs of survivors of this violence. It is incomprehensible, after all these years of the DRC being declared ‘the rape capital of the world’, that frontline health support, such as the PEP (post exposure prophylaxis) treatment to prevent HIV transmission for example, remains inadequate and inaccessible across vast swaths of the country.

No easy solutions – but let’s learn from experience

Of course, we cannot pretend that there are any easy solutions for sexual violence in the DRC. Deeply engrained norms regarding women’s subordinate place in the home and society mean that progress is slow. Women are still often seen as ‘assets’ of the husband. Stigma against survivors, rather than perpetrators persists. The low level of education and livelihoods opportunities available to women also represent obstacles to their efforts to gain a voice in community matters, including on GBV. Furthermore, long distances to formal courts and the high likelihood of GBV cases collapsing or resulting in no reparation for the survivor also undermine efforts to prosecute GBV crimes.

But while there is no single, easy fix, there are lessons from the DRC that must be heeded at the Global Summit in London. Mr Hague, Ms Jolie and the other world leaders gathered there need to commit to treat root causes of the violence, not just its symptoms; put survivor safety first; and invest in frontline humanitarian assistance. Will they listen?

Yawo Douvon

Yawo Douvon is CARE's Country Director in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He has 22 years' experience with CARE both in development and humanitarian work. He has spent the past 10 years working in post-conflict situations in Burundi and the DRC, particularly in sustainable development and women's empowerment programming.