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The Spread of Violence in South Kivu

By Mugisho Theophile, Safe World DR Congo Correspondent,
and Executive Director of COFAPRI


Most victims are women and girls

South Kivu is a province that is located in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo-DRC. This province has experienced a lot of troubles due to the consecutive wars that have torn apart the DRC.

Bahati-with-childBahati, co-founder of COFAPRI, with girl whose education is sponsored by COFAPRI

The consequences of these wars were blind; they affected almost every person and thing in the province in one way or another.

In particular, most of the victims were women and girls because they were raped, mutilated, tortured, and even killed.

But we need to understand the reasons for such a social plague of violence in the context of South Kivu.

In fact, violence is a premeditated choice that an individual makes in order to resolve contention.

This not an accidental way of harming the other party, but a well shaped means that is employed with the intention of achieving one’s own preference. Such desire includes various aspects such as cultural cleansing, political horror, coercion and environment destruction.

The above aspects reveal that a single aspect cannot fully justify the beliefs and attitudes that foster assault toward others –  and neither can a separate factor explain why violence is more rampant in some societies than in others.

The full understanding of how these factors interplay with violence can help move toward its reduction in the family and in the society in general.  

Violence Comes in Many Forms

Violence is widespread in the DRC violence and it has different forms.

Indeed, this  is a premeditated means for the abuser to address conflicts in society or in family, and sometimes, there exists other people who apply violence on themselves by putting an end to their lives.

Although the latter case is rare, it is believed to be one of the forms of physical violence.

Physical aggression refers to tangible and sometimes presaged physical or psychological harm to the other.

The truth is that violence includes several features like verbal and economic abuse, corporal punishment, and war, just to name a few.

Traditions and Cultures Give the Green Light for Violence

Since the creation of the earth, men nurture attitudes and beliefs of violence because of their social traditions and cultures that give them green light to do so.

For instance, the political structure that is encouraging violence cannot punish it and consequently it quickly spreads.

In the DRC, and South Kivu in particular, this situation of neglect is spread nationwide, which makes it be on the rise- – and therefore, impacts more and more people in the province.

In this line, we ascertain that such proliferation of violence stems from social, political, and economic compositions of the area that neglect the issue.

Similarly, the DRC government has failed to hinder the different cyclic wars that guerrillas and warlords support.

Consequences of War Slowly Killing the Citizens

The consequences of these wars are more sensible and killing little by little more people than the war itself. 

This means that the consequences of the wars – for instance, rapes and economic crisis, kill people, not directly, but it kills people morally though they are alive.

The people who are affected in this way are more –  compared to those who die immediately in the war and by the war.

Quite a lot of people in South Kivu are suffering from the different diseases that they have acquired; the various wounds the wars have caused to them make them languish.

These wounds are either physical, moral, and spiritual.

There are more damages, but essentially, hunger has caused more sufferings and deaths because the villagers who were the main town food suppliers have deserted the rural areas for fear of war violence.

Besides hunger, women have been treated as objects that are easily usable sexually by the fighters from all sides, including those ranked in the UN mission.

This means that women were raped and up to today they still suffer the aftermaths of these barbarian actions that they have lived.

People Are Starving

On the other hand, structural violence derives from violence in South Kivu.

This kind of violence involves a silent process that works slowly in the way of misery in general, and hunger in particular.

It erodes and finally kills human beings with no respect.

This is what explains the reasons why, today, in South Kivu, people are starving.

One of the main reasons for this is that wars ravaged the villages that were supplying the towns with food.

Men were assaulted – and those who survived were either obliged to join the battles or join others who fled to town for fear of the above-mentioned wars.

Then the villages remained without producers of food.

The towns are now engorged with village people who came there with their village behaviours, which develops sorcery and theft in towns.

This is well known by all the different structures of the DRC, but nothing is being done to settle the issue.

In addition, in order to deplore such life conditions, the Congolese are getting poor salaries; they suffer from illiteracy, poor health, and have non-existent respect of legal and human rights –  including when they dare to claim for their rights.

Those in Power Resort to Violence

This kind of violence has existed for ages, and various leaders have chosen it as their best technique to assert power and control over the grassroots who are the weak citizens.

In fact, this depicts the way of some people in power who often resort to violence as their right way to settle contentions and to sanction people’s everyday misconduct and insubordination.

In the context of the South Kivu armed conflict, male fighters who perpetrate violence against women basically position their attitudes and beliefs on traditional opinions.

The latter always allow men to abuse women in one way or another.

These views are a kind of assault that boost worrying expressions toward gender prejudice – the condition that considers women and girls as objects that can be abused with impunity.

This stems from men’s misuse of power and the common beliefs among the people – including some women, who remain supportive to men’s violence in the home and in society.

In South Kivu, there exists some women who often cause men to apply violence to them.

South Kivu women, to some people's minds, often provoke their husbands to abuse them.   

For instance, some women want to verbally resist their husbands, and this is what men do not like, which culminates into violence as a way to silence and terrorise those women.

Other women do things the husbands have forbidden them, and this is in a repetitive way.

To show that they are men, they use violence on women.

Again, it seems there exists women who never control their behaviors and words to use towards men. When men feel their power is at risk and that they may lose their authority on the wife, they go violent as a way to silence the women.

All this is done because men in this province are socially allowed to abuse women, they want to show their maleness on women.

But also, women have been recognized as the sole transmitters of community and nation symbols of culture.

The war’s direct violence toward women and girls entails direct assault against social ethics, which promotes cultural violence in society.

Therefore, cultural exploitation in South Kivu recalls the justification or excuses that men abusers wave when they use physical or structural violence on the individuals that they consider as powerless.

Some Groups Feel Naturally Superior to Others

The above arguments instill in abusers’ minds the belief that they are naturally superior to the victim.

This extends throughout society because some people and ethnicities are convinced of their natural supremacy that favour them to be abusive toward those who are deemed weak and low.

This has happened in South Kivu when the Banyamulenge tribe – locally considered as both foreign and inferior to other tribes of the DRC, were molested by the local populations.

The belief that some ethnicities are more valuable than others leads to social arrogance and this may be identified by language, origin, morphology, culture or religious beliefs of the neglected group.

Besides, in the context of South Kivu, armed men are believed to be the most powerful reason why they abuse the population.

DRC Builds on a Male-Dominated System

The above belief proves that the DRC builds on a customarily male-dominated system.

This infers that a strong patriarchal system in place encourages men’s attitudes and beliefs that foster exploitation and abuse toward those who are considered as weak people.

Such a social environment strengthens social negative feelings and principles of violence toward the powerless.

For this reason, armed people use violence for asserting power, which is an expression of their maleness in the society.

Based on the above assertions, South Kivu violence has generated big problems to the people of the province and therefore has impeded the local population from choosing what is significant for making their own lives in a harmonious society.

South Kivu province has witnessed several elements that dislocate social unity as they endorse violence outbreak. The influence of society on people is great regarding personal attitudes and beliefs of violence.

Since human beings do not live in a vacuum, their lives are therefore bound with some social values that are inextricably entrenched in individuals’ philosophy and environment.

The principles on which South Kivu people build their cohesion must be supported because lack of their strong and fair social protection and lack of educative, economic, and social empowerment generate violence –  which ultimately makes them vulnerable.

Furthermore, despite the fact that there are different ways in which society may strongly influence people to involve in violence, we do not have to be puppets of our social environment.

South Kivu people should take responsibility for their own lives.

However, South Kivu people who are socially backed for abuse plan how to harm and in which way to do so.

Even though the victims – humans or not, remain unaware of the conspiracy that the abuser has premeditated, the perpetrator knows better the right moment to trigger violence; either using acts of physical, psychological, verbal or economic abuse.

This is simply because society does not impede the process.

South Kivu violence has increased dramatically in these recent years because of warfare and its consequences are grave.

These war outcomes affect households, the whole community for the rest of their lives, and the environment. Sexual violence was the tool that the violence used to bring shame to the whole society.

Studies that were, and are, being conducted on the issue show that girls as young as three years and women as old as 73 were sexually abused.

This brought shame to South Kivu society and the whole world because women and girls were forced into sex with the perpetrator in the presence of family members.

Although the victim could not comply with the abuser’s proposals, they were obliged to abide to the perpetrator’s wish with the hope of saving their lives.

Sexual abuse is a crime and human rights infringement, regardless whether the action was  or was not completed.

It has been reported that 63.75% of the victims of violence in South Kivu are women; they face serious and chronic psychological, physical and moral injuries, life-threatening diseases such as HIV/AIDS and other incurable STDs, forced pregnancies, stigmatisation, and even rejection from families and communities.

While South Kivu women and girls were cruelly gang-raped and sometimes in public, the men were obliged by gunpoint to sexually assault their daughters and parents.

Besides, Bukavu's only referral hospital of Panzi received 3,500 women and girls affected with sexual abuse in 2008 alone.

Abuse Built on Culture, Silence, Violence, and Impunity

On the other hand, we have to understand the context in which South Kivu's social abuse builds around the culture of silence, violence and impunity.

These three traditions remain integrative parts of societal norms that further violence as an instrument for abusers to achieve their pre-set objectives –  which is strongly associated with the prevalence of violence in South Kivu.

The course of violence in South Kivu impeded different activities, and therefore social development.

South Kivu children could not go to school and some of them were obliged to enroll with the combatants; girls involved in untimely sex industry for survival.

This decade has marked the DRC – and particularly its Eastern part, with a flow of massive and repeated violence of war.

It is only after the awful genocide of Rwanda in 1994 that refugees flowed to the Eastern Zaire, today DRC.

Due to this massive movement of refugees, several militia entered the country and the region, which invigorated violence in south Kivu, and some observers say that from 1996 up to 1998, five million people had been slaughtered.

Although there have been promises of peace accords in 2003 and 2008, as well as the nation's first free elections in 2006, militia activities and lawlessness persist, especially in the DRC eastern provinces, particularly in South Kivu.

Application of violence covers the former province of Kivu, where South Kivu is located.

Such barbarities cause sexual atrocities and various reports depict the situation.

In this view, in 2008, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) reported to have assisted over 40,000 women and girls who endured sexual violence in South Kivu starting from the year 2003.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) says they have assisted more than 60 women and girl survivors of sexual atrocities per month.

Furthermore, the UN reports 27,000 sexual assaults in South Kivu Province alone in 2006.

Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu Province, serves as a major general referral hospital that currently offers services in obstetrics, paediatrics, internal medicine, surgery, dentistry, and nutrition to these women and girls who have been raped by the fighters.

The different forms of abuse that women and girls experienced during wars were perpetrated by male fighters and were restricted to gender in both nature and result. Those successive wars imperilled too many people, materials and the ecosystem.

As the wars have lasted more than sixteen years, it becomes obvious that they have caused an awful violence of human rights, harmed households –  and exceptionally, women experienced horrible and shameful forms of violence: they were raped, mutilated, tortured, beaten and even killed.

Sexual Assault: A Devastating Tool Fighters Use

In the same vein, sexual assault has been uplifted as one of the most devastating tool that the fighters have been using since 1996.

The different militia, local and foreign, together with the DRC-based UN peacekeepers-MONUC and government soldiers, have  been involved in massive violence, particularly sexual abuse with the women and girls of the Eastern DRC.

In abusing women and girls sexually, the perpetrators’ aim was to punish communities and territory using threat and terrorism, which means that sexual torture applies for systematic destruction of entire communities and the dignity of its people who are victimised.

Experiencing conditions of perpetual violence in the eyes of local and international leaders has hindered South Kivu people to enjoy peace and stability in the province Kivu, in the country and in the region.

Furthermore, South Kivu violence has strongly impacted the victims as some of them have been contaminated by AIDS and other STDs, others got undesired pregnancies that delivered fatherless children – who later became street children or thieves by lack of assistance.

The factors enumerated above caused the violence to become very intense by killing many innocent people. The majority of the South Kivu victims could not report what they have witnessed because of various reasons.

Among them, let us highlight that an abused person may fear to report or accuse the abuser because they are limited -- they do not trust the system in place to change the situation, and they also fear reprisals from the abusers.

Most of the South Kivu people who have disappeared – and others killed by unknown people, are as the result of reprisal.

All these situations developed negative emotions of hatred, fear, and lack of self esteem among the victims.

By experiencing violence for long periods, South Kivu people have become totally silenced –  and therefore, they remain in panic to communicate their desires for autonomy.

Fear to retell the course of violence is an emotion that cannot remain eternally, but once the shock has gone, sometimes the oppressed become victimisers, which is possible in country like the DRC in which the culture of impunity is a way of life.

Violence Destroyed the Ecosystem Along with People

Eventually, South Kivu violence also destroyed the ecosystem, individuals, and infrastructures.

As for the former, the total destruction of the DRC forests and national reserves in its Eastern part equally damaged the economic sector.

Besides, the province’s different attractive areas were completely damaged: animals in parks ravaged on daily basis as they were systematically poached.

These barbarians extinguished non-moving or non-speaking creatures just for the sake of destroying the environment of South Kivu.

The latter contained very nice natural attractions like lakes, forests and animals that could generate national revenue and so propel South Kivu development.

But all these have disappeared as a result of violence, which has incredibly affected the national budget.

And as regards to infrastructures, most of schools, churches, markets, and factories were either destroyed or pillaged – which sent thousands of children back home. These children who lacked education –  and their unemployed teachers, became a social burden and useless to their families.

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