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Challenging rape in the Congo – is the UK going far enough?

Government motion calls for end of restrictions on services to rape survivors.

Between 1999 and 2012, Panzi Hospital, in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)  treated 19,270 survivors of sexualized violence.

The hospital’s medical director and international advocate for survivors of rape in conflict, Dr Denis Mukwege, told the BBC: “These weren’t just violent acts of war, but part of a strategy.

“You had situations where multiple people were raped at the same time, publicly – a whole village might be raped during the night. In doing this, they hurt not just the victims but the whole community, which they force to watch.

“The result of this strategy is that people are forced to flee their villages, abandon their fields, their resources, everything. It’s very effective.”

The suffering of many survivors is compounded by an indirect but effective ban on abortion provision by many humanitarian organisations.

One of the main causes of the abortion ban is the USA’s infamous ‘Helm’s Amendment’, which states that:  “No foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.”

Although a US policy, the Helm’s Amendment has an international impact on aid, as the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and other national funding programmes do not require recipient organisations like The Red Cross to separate out their funds to allow abortion provision.

A new Early Day Motion (EDM), sponsored by Katy Clark MP, calls on the government to: “review all funding to aid agencies operating in conflict zones to ensure that all aid providers in receipt of UK monies facilitate access to counselling and abortion services for all women and girls impregnated by rape.”

Only 52 MPs out of 650 expressed support for the EDM and their names can be found here.

While the UK’s Early Day Motion is a step forward for rape victims in the Congo, for some international activists, media representation of the issue is overly simplistic. Governments often seem to ignore the complexity and context in which rape is employed as a weapon of war, particularly the often-neglected issue of the involvement of western states – including the UK – in supporting conflicts across the world.

B K Kumbi, Congolese historian and activist, criticises UK government policy for encouraging the world to “forget about the role played by Rwanda in this tragedy.”

In a recent interview Kumbi added, “This kind of speech says nothing of those who allow these rapes to be possible.”

The UK imposed a freeze on aid to the Rwandan government in July last year,following accusations by the United Nations that Rwanda was arming rebels in the Congo.

According to the Guardian, “The UK, the biggest bilateral donor to Rwanda, has previously been seen as less willing to criticise Kagame, championed by Tony Blair as a “visionary leader” despite concerns over internal repression.”

Aid was reinstated in September on the condition it was to be distributed by aid organisations.

In March this year, a £9m package of aid to the Rwandan government was announced despite repeated claims from Human Rights Watch (HRW) that Rwandan soldiers have been crossing the border to take supplies to M23 Congo rebels.

In its report, Human Rights Watch highlighted that the Rwandan-backed M23 rebels carried out at least 61 identified cases of rape in the Congo. In 2012, HRW also told of M23 fighters raping at least 46 women and girls, the youngest of whom was only 8 years old.

The failure of the UK government to address the complexity and context of rape as a weapon of war in the DRC is also being challenged by the Labour opposition for being ‘too soft’ on Rwandan aid.

Writing in the Telegraph, the shadow secretary for international development, Ivan Lewis, and shadow minister for Africa and the Middle East Ian Lucas said that if elected: “Labour will only support the reinstatement of direct UK funding if it can be demonstrated that for at least a 12-month period no direct or indirect support has been provided by the Government of Rwanda to militias operating in DRC.”

Beyond the complexities of international politics, Elizabeth Jean Wood, a political scientist at Yale University who has undertaken research on the use of sexual violence in conflict, believes that the use of sexual violence in conflict is not inevitable.

Commenting on the Women Under Siege project’s site, Wood recently said: “That some armed groups do not rape civilians – at least some of the time – should give us hope.

“Rape in war is not inevitable, and therefore current policy initiatives – including prosecution of perpetrators and their commanders – may reduce this form of wartime violence.”

Find out more about the Global Justice Center’s ongoing campaign to end rape in conflict here.

And edited version of this article originally appeared on Women’s Views on News on 30th July 2013.