Ecofeminism,  Featured

Why Congo Soldiers Use Rape As a War Tactic (and What Your Smartphone Has to Do With It)

Chouchou Namegabe at home in New York. Photo by Svetlana Jovanovic.

“I realized my microphone was a gun to break the silence of the violence against women and the quiet war on women.” — Chouchou Namegabe 

Even at home in New York Chouchou Nagambe is dressed like an African Queen in her traditional Congolese head-dress and robes. But she moves like a worn-out soldier in a pair of 5-inch platform espadrilles from Aldo—for good reason: She is a journalist whose tireless work on behalf of Congolese rape victims has  yet to bring justice.

When not at home in New York, Chouchou works in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or what the United Nations has called “the rape capital of the world.” There, 400,000 women are sexually assaulted each year. That violence against women is a direct result of the conflicts fueled by our addiction to the latest gadgets, and an out-of-control global commodities market that values cobalt to fuel our phones—while ignoring the cost to women’s bodies and the environment. I’m here to hear from Chouchou how exactly this happened. 

As Chouchou and I figure out where to do our interview, the laughter of her small children filters into the room, and I notice that toys are scattered in small piles throughout the house.  A poster-size photo of her in her traditional attire hangs on the wall. Her husband, a United Nations Development Program employee from Belgium, swells as he looks at her with pride. Her face is round, beaming as she smiles, which is most of the time.

The innocence of her face, her house, and  her small children are a world away from the atrocities she is about to describe. She shuffles to the couch and asks her husband to remove her children; this is not a topic for young ears.

Let’s Talk About Rape

Chouchou’s smile fades as she gazes out the window and tells me about what happened to women and girls in her country. The stories are very hard to hear (graphic descriptions next three paragraphs).

Chouchou describes a difficult conversation she had with a little girl who’s reproductive organs were mutilated. When the little girl asked her if she would ever be a woman again, Chouchou (who was pregnant at the time) struggled to maintain composure: “You know sometimes [as a journalist]  we’re taught that we should not show our feelings or not to cry in front of the victims, but sometimes you are a human being and you can’t stop crying when you see the little girl who tells you how after she was raped they put branches in her vagina and she lost her uterus. I remember the little girl asked me, ‘Am I going to become a woman again?’ 

Mutilation sometimes accompanied rape as described above, and below:

“There were those who were burned when they put the fuel in her vagina. After they extinguished the fire they let them suffer with their wounds. It is not a human being that can do that,” she says. 

Yet it wasn’t always like this. When the Second Congo War erupted in 1998, Chouchou noticed a new phenomenon. Women were being raped in public by rebel groups. But nobody wanted to talk about it. Every time there was a story about attacks in local villages, women were raped, but it wasn’t reported on. Chouchou knew she needed to do something and pushed her colleagues to write about the rapes.

“The first time we wanted to talk about it in the media with my colleagues we discussed it in our writing room and they said, ‘No, it is [just] a problem of women.’ We said, ‘No it is really a big problem and we have to talk about it.’ But they didn’t.” And so in 2001, she founded the South Kivu Women’s Media Association, which trained rape victims to tell their stories on the air.

“I had to do something — to use my microphone as a gun to fight that silence. Because they knew the victims would stay silenced because it is a shame. [But] we say to them, ‘Be loudspeakers.’ So we started denouncing it in the media, telling their stories openly. That was our strategy.”

Yet they didn’t  know how to even describe it because there was no word for rape in their language. “We tried to look for words, appropriate words to talk about it in media; we couldn’t find it in the local languages from Congo. So we brought the words from from Tanzania and we started talking about ubakaji [Swahili for rape] and at the time we couldn’t know how to describe it so we said, we broadcast the testimonies and we let people judge by themselves.”

Left photo: Via USAID by Leah Werchick; Rape victims who have been successfully reintegrated into their communities assemble in a “peace hut” near Walungu, South Kivu in DRC. Right photo: Congolese soldier adjusting automatic weapon. Photo taken during visit of US Rep. Frank Wolf. Both images via Wikimedia Commons.

A New War Tactic In Congo  

It was during this First Congo War, also nicknamed Africa’s First World War, that assaulting militias began using rape as a weapon of war in the Congo.   

According to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, rape has been a dishonourable camp follower of war for as long as armies have marched into battle. But in the 20th century, perceptions of rape in war have moved from something that was—incorrectly and unfairly seen as “inevitable” when men are deprived of female companionship for prolonged periods—to an actual tactic in conflict.

“[Rape] didn’t exist in our culture. It was something new. It was a tactic of war, a strategy to destroy the entire community.”

During the 1990s, Congo was still considered Zaire and under the leadership of President Mobutu Sese Seko. The country witnessed a large influx of refugees after the Rwandan genocide, many of whom included genocide perpetrators who armed themselves into a multitude of opposing militias.

By 1996, this situation escalated when Rwanda invaded Zaire to defeat a number of rebel groups which had found refuge in the country. More states (including Uganda, Burundi, Angola, and Eritrea) joined the invasion, while a Congolese alliance of anti-Mobutu rebels was assembled. The conflict culminated in a foreign invasion that replaced President Mobutu with the rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila and Zaire became the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Tensions between President Kabila and the Rwandan and Tutsi presence in the country led to the Second Congo War from 1998 to 2003. 

When the Second Civil War erupted, rape continued to be used as a tactic against women — but now it was about resources. As assaulting militias realized they could cash in on rich mineral deposits by grabbing land, what became apparent was that the new battlefields were women’s bodies. Rebel forces would move into new areas, employ a tactic of raping women in public, and burn through fabric of a community like a fast-moving wildfire.

Chouchou explains how this ‘silent war on women’ cleared villagers from their land: “Because when the gun shot, people were staying in their homes. But when they started using rape, it was a public rape in front of family members, in front of communities, so it forced people to leave their villages.”

And while the specific wars mentioned above are officially over, the rape hasn’t stopped.

That brings me to how our addiction to gadgets fuel  this situation. In Part 2 of this story, I will explain how our smartphone addiction is closely tied to the routine rape of African women and we’ll hear more of Chouchou’s story.  

Jessica Williamson is a social impact storyteller and partnership builder who believes in the power of story to change the world. She is a writer, reporter, speaker, video producer, and on-air personality dedicated to amplifying the voices of marginalized women to create a healthy planet. She currently serves as the North American Regional Director for the World Information Transfer (WIT); an NGO in General Consultative Status with the United Nations. She urges world leaders, governments, and institutions to consider the role of women in sustainable development at global policy meetings. In her new role at Eco Chick, Jessica aims to share women’s stories and give NGO’s platform by connecting them to mainstream audiences.