By Sofia Tillo
Published September 7, 2010
UN Special Representative for the Democratic Republic of Congo, Roger Meece, confirms the occurrence of a systematic four-day campaign of sexual violence in the country’s North Kivu province. Though the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and local Mai-Mai militiamen gang-raped 179 women and four babies (BBC quotes Atul Khare, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping,as having reported to the Security Council that although 242 rape cases had earlier been reported in and around Luvungi, 260 more cases had come to light in the Uvira area and other regions of North and South Kivu!) 20 miles from the UN military base, the United Nations Organisation Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) was unaware of it days after it happened.
The Special Representative uses several problematic cultural justifications for the challenges of peace-keeping in the DRC. He says that the socio-cultural dimension of the crime makes communication difficult. “There is a cultural baggage associated with rapes,” he says.
Crime committed by rebel groups tend to psychologically shake individuals to the core. Often they include personal and painful episodes, such as the abduction of children and extreme sexual violence against women.
Though Meece seems to suggest that the difficulty in obtaining information about such events is a “cultural challenge”, specialists, partners, and common sense all point to a more complex and embarrassing problem. It seems the UN mission has not done all it can to build communications infrastructure in the region. There is no phone coverage in all but one village in the region. Whether there is good communication between MONUSCO and local villages is a topic of continuous debate.
In his press videoconference following the mass rape, Meece would not specify whether peace-keepers actually leave the tanks when patrolling villages. With this in mind, it seems unlikely that MONUSCO is able to build any real level of trust and understanding with local communities.
Explaining why the civilian population was unwilling to report the attack to MONUSCO, Meece said that rape victims are “often rejected by families and communities, adding victimisation to victimisation.” But this is an explanation heard all too often and not a valid excuse to explain the lack of reporting in this case.
The rape largely occurred in the victim’s homes or wooded areas just outside villages. Entire communities would have known about the crime, but the lack of disclosure to MONUSCO is a powerful illustration of the relationship that the UN force has with people on the ground.
Also unclear is MONUSCO’s gender sensitivity policy. Sources from within MONUSCO confirm that every patrol team includes a Congolese ‘community liaison interpreter,, fluent in local languages. However, none of the interpreters are women. There is also no guarantee that a female peacekeeper participates in each patrol. The problem extends to the entire UN system, where it is estimated that only two percent of its military personnel are women, a particular liability for the mission in the DRC where sexual violence is a pressing concern.
In interview with MediaGlobal MONUSCO’s Leutenant Sikanbar confirmed that although his unit runs day and night patrols, there are no women peacekeepers on duty.
It is widely accepted that women feel more secure reporting rape to female officers, regardless of cultural difference.
Often perceived as a side note to peacekeeping missions, the lack of gender sensitivity in a war torn-region is evidently a serious liability to ending sexual violence in conflict.
At the press conference, when questions turned to field infrastructure, the Special Representative did not specify how exactly the mission will improve the SOS or early warning system available to the villages where the mass rape occurred. Populations had no effective way of calling for help at the time of the attack. In the aftermath, victims might not have been keen to discuss their rape by armed, uniformed men with other armed, uniformed men.
The whole episode highlights the crucial importance of securing the trust of local communities and actively involving them in the process of ending conflict.
Building a more effective relationship with local people must at the very least involve responding to attack as it happens. Building such a relation is hard for MONUSCO who is cooperating with the Congolese armed forces; a group that has a difficult rapport with civilians in the region. In the current situation some local mistrust of UN peacekeepers is easy to understand, but doesn’t mean it is excusable.
A MedoaGlobal Article