‘Rape as a Weapon of War’ Obscures Complexities of Violence in DR Congo

The following is an excerpt from my plenary speech, Daring to Make A Difference for DR Congo: Research, Theory, and the Critical Scholar-Activist at the 2015 annual meeting of the National Council on Family Relations conference held in Vancouver, BC, November 13.


When rape in conflict is framed as a weapon of war, it obscures important distinctions between contexts, perpetrators, the forms of sexualized violence beyond rape, and the forms of violence that are not sexual violations but also occurring in Congo.

For example, there is a difference between conflict-related sexualized violence and domestic sexualized violence. Intimate partner sexualized violence is considered to be the most pervasive form of violence against women in all areas of the DRC. However, reporting IPV is rare because women have no legal rights to property or wealth and fear losing their children or being shunned by the community. Further, there is no law against marital rape.

So we see that this concept of rape as a weapon of war fails to capture:

  1. domestic SV
  2. the difference between sexualized and non-sexualized IPV
  3. SV perpetrated by non-combatants such as police, criminals, people in                      positions of authority, women, civilians
  4. other forms of non-sexual violence: torture, forced labor, child soldiers, murder,              trafficking, and child abuse
  5. other forms of sexualized violence: sexual slavery, sexual harassment,                        trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, forced exposure to                        pornography, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization, forced abortion, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, virginity tests, and incest

Finally, the conceptualization of rape as a weapon of war obscures other structural, social, and psychological factors that contribute to gender-based violence and violence in general in the DRC. Factors such as…..

  1. impunity
  2. poverty
  3. failed state (lack of infrastructure such as schools, roads, healthcare, etc.)
  4. trauma
  5. geopolitics of the region
  6. historical context (e.g., legacies of colonization, Mabuto, etc.)
  7. control of natural resources
  8. disputes over land rights, citizenship rights
  9. displaced persons
  10. corruption
  11. inferior status of women in DRC across all domains (economic, social, cultural,       political)
  12. hegemonic masculinity
  13. reintegration of combatants
  14. circulation of arms
  15. dynamics of armed groups
  16. status of conflict (pre-, active, post-)

These narrow conceptualizations result in ineffective responses to human suffering and stifle Congolese self-determination. The mass atrocities in Congo must be understood as a symptom of failed economic, social, and political structures rooted in the legacy of colonization, the geopolitics of the region, corruption, the scramble for natural resources, and the inferior status of women.

Select sources: Alexandra, 2010; Eriksson Baaz & Stern, 2013; Henry, 2015; Koos, 2015; Peterman, Palermo & Bredenkamp, 2011; Prio, 2010

About Lee Ann De Reus

Executive Director, DV LEAP; Co-founder, Panzi Foundation USA
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