Sexual violence in the Kivus must be an AU priority

A Congolese soldier patrols the village of Walikale, where men, women and children were raped by gunmen in recent weeks.

By the end of this year South Africa’s Chairship of the African Union will be judged not on the agenda it forged, but on the pragmatic actions taken on the ground to better the lives of African people. This week President Cyril Ramaphosa said one of South Africa’s three key priorities as AU Chair is women’s empowerment, and specifically combating violence against women and girls. 

This compliments South Africa’s efforts as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council to strengthen the Women Peace and Security Agenda through UNSC Resolution 2493, and to ensure accountability for the crime of sexual violence. South Africa has said that it wants to strengthen support for women and children in conflict. 

Given our stated commitment to address the scourge of gender-based violence in Africa at the UNSC, and the priority it will be given at the AU under South Africa’s Chairship, South Africa should specifically focus on the catastrophic situation of women and girls in the Eastern DRC, particularly in the Kivus.

The Kivus are known as the “rape capital of the world,” with the highest levels of sexual violence on the continent. If we are to give practical meaning to our statements on women peace and security, we need to ensure that in 2020 the AU takes measures to protect women and girls in the Kivus from sexual exploitation and violence, primarily committed by armed groups and militias based in the area.

For years the women and girls of the Kivus have suffered repeated sexual attacks by rebel groups backed by the DRC’s neighbours – Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. They have also been the targets of the DRC’s own armed forces the FARDC. While the DRC introduced a law in 2006 criminalising sexual violence, it has failed to prosecute and punish the perpetrators.

Not only is there a lack of political will to address this scourge, but the country also lacks the capacity to investigate, arrest and punish those responsible, and the judiciary is seriously incapacitated. The result being that sexual crimes against women and girls continue with impunity as they always have, and the problem is getting worse as rebel groups use sexual violence as a weapon of war and a means to control territory with lucrative mineral deposits.

The wealth of strategic minerals in the Kivus has provided an ongoing incentive for armed groups to vie for control over mineral rich areas, and neighbouring governments have an interest in maintaining a stronghold in the region through their proxy armed militias.

DRC President Felix Tshisekedi has said that he is considering inviting neighbouring countries into the DRC to fight against armed groups in joint operations with the DRC armed forces. This is particularly problematic as it will likely fuel a proxy struggle and could usher in a new regional war. Diplomatic efforts to ease tensions between Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are preferable, but there also needs to be a robust effort to disarm and neutralise rebel groups by more neutral outside forces.

That is the mandate of the UN Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) which was created in 2013. The FIB was authorised by the UN Security Council to use force and carry out targeted offensive operations to neutralise and disarm rebel groups in the area. South Africa, Tanzania, and Malawi had provided troops for the FIB at the time of its creation, and successfully neutralised the M23 rebel group.

Currently the FIB is under the command of South African Brigadier General Patrick Dube, but the question is why is this force not actively engaging in disarming and neutralising the rebel forces that are wreaking havoc in the region, and waging violence against women and girls.

If it is a question of needing funding for the FIB to carry out such operations, South Africa could raise this issue at the UN Security Council as a tangible way in which the UN and the AU could collaborate on bringing peace and security to the Kivus. If the UN through MONUSCO significantly bolsters resources for the FIB, and South Africa together with other countries add additional troops, the FIB could become a force to be reckoned with and prove fit for purpose.

Perhaps this is a way for South African to meaningfully impact on improving human security in the region, and potentially bring an end to the reign of terror that armed forces that have had in the Kivus. If necessary the FIB could undertake this mission in conjunction with the DRC armed forces, which would be more appropriate than neighbouring countries putting boots on the ground – all of whom have vested interests in exploiting the mineral wealth of the area, and are at loggerheads with each other.

South Africa has a long menu of priorities that it would like to accomplish in its one year as Chair of the AU. But if it succeeds in accomplishing even one priority of reducing violence against women in the worst affected area in Africa, it will have shown leadership on the continent and shown that the AU is far more than a talk shop.

Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for the Independent Media Group.