Freedom from Torture - Rape as torture in the DRC: Sexual violence beyond the conflict zone

Rape as torture in the DRC: Sexual violence beyond the conflict zone

Often dubbed the 'rape capital of the world', the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen an alarming increase in rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war since the conflict in the early 1990's, and remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman.

But new research published by Freedom from Torture shows that persecutory rape, including gang rape and multiple rape, is also being used routinely by state officials in the DRC to punish politically active women, in the country's capital Kinshasa and other regions outside the armed conflict region.

Rape as Torture in the DRC: Sexual Violence Beyond the Conflict Zone analyses evidence from 34 forensic medical reports written by specially trained doctors at Freedom from Torture and indicates that rape is being used as torture by state security forces in prisons across the country to stop women speaking out about politics, human rights and, in some cases, rape itself.

In international law rape committed by state officials can amount to torture, but in the DRC rape as an act of torture goes mostly unacknowledged and unpunished. With this culture of impunity, there is little hope of survivors of rape as torture obtaining justice or of preventing a repeat of such crimes in the future.


Rape as Torture in the DRC: Sexual Violence Beyond the Conflict Zone

Rape as Torture in the DRC: Sexual Violence Beyond the Conflict Zone

Related news

Who are the women?

The 34 survivors whose torture is documented in this report include traders and university graduates, mothers and wives, and were aged from under 21 to over 60. They come from a range of ethnic backgrounds and areas of the country.

They were targeted because of their political involvement as supporters of opposition groups, or women’s rights organisations – or because of the involvement of a family member. The activities that led to their arrests included distributing leaflets, banners and attending meetings and demonstrations. For example, Jomaphie was arrested by soldiers while attending a political event at Kinshasa’s airport in 2011. She was detained for four days in a room where women were repeatedly raped.

Eight women did not know the where­abouts of their husband/partner. Twenty-seven of the women were mothers, but most had been forced to leave their children behind when they fled the country

Arrest and detention

The women were all arrested by state actors - sol­diers, police or members of the security services - and mostly they were detained in state facilities. They were frequently mistreated during arrest and en route to detention. They described being hit with rubber truncheons and belts, being restrained face down in the back of a truck and being kicked and stamped on, slapped and punched. The women had no access to legal advice or representation.

Most periods of detention were under three months, but one woman was detained for 20 months. The conditions in which they were held were foul and un­hygienic; with little light or air, no sanitation and without adequate food and water. Women held in solitary confinement described being detained in cells as small as one metre square in which they were unable to lie down. Others were crowded into small cells with up to 20 other people.

Evidence of torture

The torture documented in the 34 medico-legal reports included rape, in all but one case, and a range of other forms of sexual violence; beatings and assaults in all cases; burning in half of the cases and cutting, stabbing and forced or stress positioning in many more.

In  the case of one woman, a Freedom from Torture doctor documented 68 scars attributable to torture. Fifty-six of these scars were attributable to a specific instance of gang-rape.

The women reported genito-urinary symptoms and chronic pain – back and joint pain and persistent migraines – attributable to their experience of detention and torture. Two women were diagnosed HIV positive and another two women disclosed pregnancies that were the result of rape.

One of our clinicians reported her client "...was gang-raped more than once. They raped her vaginally, anally and orally, forcing her to open her mouth and to swallow the semen."

Case study - Faith the female rights activist

Faith worked at a charity that advocated for the rights of street children and rape victims and provided them with school fees, medicine and clothing. The organisation was based in Bas Congo in south west DRC, the opposite side of the country to the conflict in the east.

In early 2013, she organised an anti-rape protest where participants denounced the lack of action by the government to stop sexual violence: "We were standing against women being raped because the government wasn't doing anything about it... we had to stand up and make our voices heard."

"We were standing outside a hotel telling women about their rights and about the problems of rape in Congo. Government people were sent to watch us and they were taking notes about what we were saying.

"I was telling women not to respect the government and the President because they are not doing anything to help women and that's why we have to stand up for ourselves.

"The next morning at 5am policemen came to my house and my husband answered the door. They put a gun to his head and said they were looking for the woman who insulted the President. They took my husband outside. I never saw him again. They beat my children, my babies, with their guns. Then one of them said "you are talking about rape, now we'll show you what rape means". They raped my niece in front of us. Then they took me to prison.

"Now I know, because I have been there, that it is normal for women to be sexually abused in prison... The soldiers and the prison guards, they don't see women as human beings, they don't see any value in women. I can't even remember how many times I was raped.

"Everyone has become scared in Congo. I spoke out against sexual violence in the country and look what happened to me. Everyone would rather stay quiet but I still feel it was my duty to speak up."

Faith was imprisoned three times and during these incarcerations she was repeatedly raped and beaten. Since her arrival in the UK, Faith has been admitted to hospital due to complications arising from pelvic inflammatory disorder caused by the multiple rapes she experienced in prison. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression and she no longer likes being around other people.

Case study - Mireille the student activist

Mireille is a 23-year old woman from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She is highly educated and has a degree from one of the country' top universities.

Whilst studying, and disheartened with the corruption and sexual harassment of women she saw around her, she became a member of a mainstream opposition political party, participating in peaceful demonstrations, meetings and canvassing for new party members.

She was arrested at marches and protests three times in 18 months. Each time she was detained overnight in poor conditions. On the third occasion she was forced to sign a paper saying she would relinquish her party membership.

Once released she remained politically active. In March 2013 she was arrested for a fourth time at a political march. This time her detention lasted four months and her treatment was considerably worse.

She was taken to a room with no window or toilet. She was crammed in with around seven other women. They were forced to urinate and defecate on the floor; Mireille recalls there was often blood on the floor.

Mireille and her cellmates were often taken outside and forced to stare at the sun for periods of up to an hour. If they looked away, they were beaten with sticks, fists and kicked with heavy boots.

The first time she was taken to see the police chief, he asked her about her political views. Mireille replied that she believed in democracy. He instructed her guard:

"Take her and show her how democracy is". The guard took her outside and raped her in a ditch.

During the coming weeks she was raped another two times by prison guards and she also witnessed her cellmates being raped. If they tried to resist they were beaten.

Mireille thought she would die in that prison but after four months she was released after a family member paid a bribe. She fled the country and arrived in the UK in Autumn 2013.

Mireille shows clear symptoms of psychological illness and post traumatic stress disorder. Her basic level of functioning has been significantly damaged and her short term memory has been severely affected. Her concentration is poor and she needs help and reminders to do even basic tasks.

She frequently thinks about suicide but her strong Christian faith prevents her from harming herself. She said: "I don't have my heart anymore... I have lost the taste of life."


We call on the DRC:

to fully implement the binding legal instruments it signed up to, namely UNCAT (United National Convention Against Torture) and OPCAT (Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture); to ensure that survivors can access adequate redress for torture as well as support and assistance; and to work to end impunity for the perpetrators of torture. The DRC should also work to establish, or designate, a national body for the prevention of torture and ill-treatment to undertake regular visits to detention facilities.

The DRC should fully implement the 2009 National Strategy to combat gender-based violence and its related action plan. This should include providing the mechanism that the Government claimed to have established as part of its national strategy with adequate resources to deliver holistic care to victims.

The DRC should implement the 2006 Law against sexual violence and the related policies to ensure that these consider rape and sexual violence as torture and that they are linked to the implementation of the law criminalising torture.

To the UK FCO and international community:

While Freedom from Torture supports and welcomes the Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative and the associated International Protocol, we are concerned that these initiatives are limited to sexual violence in conflict zones. As indicated in our report, conflict in the DRC has had the effect of normalising sexual violence outside of the conflict zone to such a degree that it is used as a form of torture by state agents. We therefore call on the UK and the international community to broaden the focus of their attention to include sexual violence, and sexual violence as a form of torture in particular, which has spread outside of the conflict zones.

To the UK HO

Furthermore, whilst we welcome the FCO for its initiative in tackling sexual violence in conflict, we are concerned that Home Office policy and practice on asylum are out of step with the FCO approach. These fail to adequately reflect the risk of sexual violence, and sexual violence as a form of torture in particular, for women in the DRC outside the conflict zone.

We call upon the Home Office to update its asylum policy on the DRC as a matter of urgency to include a specific section on women that considers claims based on sexual or gender-based violence. The Home Office should also take note of the evidence contained in this report and up-date its Country of Origin Information and its asylum policy and practice to recognise the risk of torture for women on return to the DRC.

For the full recommendations please read the full report Rape as torture in the DRC: Sexual violence beyond the conflict zone; and the technical summary.