War, Tradition Feeds Sexual Violence Against Women

ICC - Africa Update
International Justice / ICC home
Democratic Republic of Congo
War, Tradition Feeds Sexual Violence Against Women

Tribal customs and the legacy of conflict put women at risk of violence and abuse.

By Heritier Maila in Lubumbashi (AR No 231, 1-Oct-09)
Simone Maganga still feels deep shame when she recalls how, after her husband died, she was obliged to have sex with his younger brother in order to lay the spirit of the deceased to rest.

“In order to remove your husband's dead body from your body, you must sleep with his little brother,” said Maganga, a member of the Hemba tribe in the south-east of the country. “Otherwise, you are told, you will start to see your husband wherever you go. Out of fear, we accept, but it is a humiliation that is difficult to forget.”

Maganga found the ordeal particularly difficult to cope with because her husband's brother is roughly the same age as her own son. She also suffered other hardships, such as not washing for 40 days and having very little to eat.

“The food you get depends on the goodwill of your husband’s family,” she explained. “Sometimes, I had to spend two or three days without food.”

Women's rights groups say that such traditional practices create an environment in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, in which women are perceived to have little value in society, making them more likely to be targets of sexual or physical abuse.

Others warn that although tribal customs contribute towards the marginalisation of women, the DRC is experiencing an increase in rape and violence caused by war.

“What we are seeing in the DRC is a new phenomenon directly associated with the conflict,” said Lyric Thompson, an international policy analyst at advocacy group Women for Women. “Rape has been widely used as a weapon of war. As soldiers have returned home, violence and abuse against women has moved into domestic life.”

Thompson adds that this phenomenon is not unique to the DRC, but is characteristic of post-war conflict environments all over the world.

She notes, however, that the DRC is one of the worst places to be a woman right now, since there are almost no systems in place to offer adequate protection.

Some acts against women are prohibited under Congolese law, but still widely practised in rural villages across the country.

Two specific examples are forced marriages and sexual intercourse with girls who are younger than 18.

“Marriages with minors occur almost daily in our villages,” said Isabelle Musonda, a student at Lubumbashi’s university. “Where is the Congolese state in such cases?”

George Simba, a magistrate, says that national law should be applied throughout the DRC, without discrimination, regardless of whether people live in a village or in a city.

“The biggest challenge for Congolese justice is that civilian and criminal courts do not exist in our villages,” he said. “In the village you only have customary tribunals and the judgement is rendered according to customs. It is very difficult for a tribal chief to renounce his tradition.”

Simba advocates replacing traditional courts with civilian and criminal ones in order to reduce violence against women.

“In cities, these customary practices are rare,” he said. “Today, it is difficult to marry a 15 year old girl in Lubumbashi, but in our villages it is still accepted.”

Stéphanie Mutonkole is a member of the Sanga tribe and explains how, among her people, it is customary for a new tribal chief to have intercourse with his mother before he can be enthroned, regardless of the age of the mother.

“After that, the mother and her child shall never see each other again or live in the same city,” she said. “You see how, with our traditions, the mother has no value anymore.”

Women for Women has set up a series of workshops in the DRC aimed at raising awareness among men of women's value to society.

“There is a custom for men to abandon their wives if they have been raped,” said Thompson. “This is because men who are unable to protect their wives from rape feel that they are no longer men, so the women get discarded.”

Jean-Claude Tshibangu, a member of the Kasaï tribe, says that the global financial crisis means that many young men can no longer afford to marry, since they need to provide a dowry of up to 1000 US dollars.

He claims that this has led to an increase in sexual violence against women, because, according to tribal customs, a man who rapes a virgin must then marry her, and does not have to pay a dowry in order to do so.

A girl who loses her virginity cannot command a dowry, he explains.

Nathalie Mulunda, from the NGO Action pour le Développement de la Femme, underscores the importance of education in stamping out the abuse and marginalisation of women in society.

“Men created these customs and all advantages are on men’s side,” she said. “Women are discouraged to study from a very early age. Women are told that their place is in the kitchen and that offices are made for men. Denying women an education is another form of abuse. An uneducated woman will not complain about a forced marriage because she doesn’t know her rights.”

Heritier Maila is an IWPR-trained reporter.