Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Militia in DRC Speak about Sexual Violence

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Militia in DRC Speak about Sexual Violence

Article excerpt

A recent study sought to explore the internal dynamics of the Mai Mai militia in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and to consider what factors might be most influential in restraining violence.

Non-state armed groups (NSAGs) in DRC have been implicated in perpetrating egregious human rights abuses, particularly acts of sexual violence, against civilians for more than two decades. These groups range from organised Congolese military units to small groups of armed militias from Rwanda and Burundi, to locally organised Mai Mai militias. Information emerging from the region underscores the pivotal role these groups play in perpetrating violence against civilians and precipitating mass displacement.

Recent research confirms the high number of rapes conducted by armed groups, citing between 54% and 88% of all such attacks reported by women being perpetrated by NSAG combatants.1 The number of armed groups and the shocking levels of violence beg the question as to whether we can better understand how NSAGs view violence, their motivations for fighting, and possible points of leverage for improving their treatment of civilians. Work by Elisabeth Wood reveals that NSAGs can be highly organised and governed by a wide range of principles and motivations, suggesting that both the perpetration of violence, as well as restraint from using it, varies across groups and conflicts.2

Attitudes towards women and sexual violence

Mai Mai militia are a powerful force in eastern DRC and have been implicated in the looting, raping, abduction and mass displacement of civilians. Our study focused on two different sub-groups of the Mai Mai - the Shikito and the Kifuafua.7

Interviews with Mai Mai combatants revealed that soldiers hold generally highly stereotypical and dismissive views of women. Soldiers interviewed for the project describe women's roles as cooking, cleaning, raising children and undertaking small commercial activities or farming to help support the family. In contrast, men are seen as the protectors of the family and the decision makers. Despite similarly rigid views about gender and the role of women, however, these two Mai Mai subgroups seemed to differ in their attitudes towards sexual violence.

Interviewees from the Shikito consistently denied that they raped women. Soldiers cited both ideology - describing themselves as the protectors of the populations - and pragmatic reasons for this restraint. One Shikito soldier said, "Rape is forbidden since we know that we are here to protect the population." Another interviewee said, ". . . [I]f one person from the group decides to rape, or a fellow soldier rapes a woman, people will say that the group of Mai Mai is raping women. It becomes a problem for the whole group."

On a more practical side, a number of soldiers noted that rape could undermine their grass-roots support from host communities. Soldiers described how vital community support was for the Shikito. "There are women there who grow food in their fields in the surrounding villages; they assist us with food."

In contrast, interviewees from the Kifuafua were much more likely to describe raping women, kidnapping them for themselves or their commanders, or undertaking rape for individual reasons. Respondents described abducting women to be "given" to commanders as a spoil of war, noting how women were distributed according to rank. "[The commander] will have his [girl] brought first before he can ask me to bring mine. . . .if you refuse, it becomes an open conflict."

Kifuafua interviewees did not describe relying on the goodwill of civilians for support. …

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