Resources and rape: The DRC’s (toxic) discursive complex

On the emergence and political work of the rape-resources narrative in the eastern DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo).

A patient at the health clinic in Bunyakiri, DRC. (Morgana Wingard via USAID Flickr.)

The recent award to Dr Denis Mukwege of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, for his extraordinary efforts to end the use of sexual violence as weapon of war, anchors attention to sexual violence in conflict settings. Yet, it also provides an excellent opportunity to rethink how we lay claim to the links between the use of rape and resource extraction in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The story we often hear on the Congolese conflict is that sexual violence is used as a weapon of war to access minerals (see here and here). It is the rape in DRC through women’s bodies and the rape of the DRC through plundering minerals/natural resources that has received widespread international attention. When the Enough Project released its strategy paper in 2009 Can You Hear Congo Now? Cell Phones, Conflict Minerals, and the Worst Sexual Violence in the World, it connected Congo’s mineral economy, western consumers and the brutal and widespread use of sexual violence in the country. It became one of the most powerful and dominant narratives on the Congolese conflict to this day. In an upcoming article (in the journal African Studies Review), we trace the emergence of this narrative and, drawing on wider literature, delve deeper into how instances of sexual violence and mineral extraction are shaping and are shaped by the conflict.

Both rape and resource extraction have been recurring themes in the reporting of the Congo wars (1996-2003). The earliest publications by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on violence in Congo/Zaire in 1996 and 1997 briefly emphasized the tactical use of rape within their reports. Rape featured prominently in their 2002 report, which was the first HRW publication to focus solely on the widespread use of sexual violence against women and girls in eastern DRC. Although the media as well as local and international human rights organizations (see here) reported on the wide prevalence of rape during and in the aftermath of the Congo wars, despite their efforts the rapes received scant international attention until 2007 with the launch of the UN Stop Rape Now Campaign and the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1820 in 2008.

Contrary to this, the illegal exploitation of natural resources, especially in the second Congo War, gained international prominence early on in the conflict. When the UN Panel of Experts in a series of reports began documenting the wide involvement of companies, armed groups and individuals in the exploitation of DRC’s natural resources, they established an important link between resource exploitation and the continuation of the conflict. In these earlier UN reports, the exploitation of coltan was not singled out over other minerals and no link was made to sexual violence. Even reports drawing attention to coltan situated the exploitation of the mineral in a much broader context of economic and food security (see Pole Institute’s 2002 report). In these earlier reports rape and resources stood relationally side by side rather than causally attributed to one another.

While the loose association between resources and sexual violence in these early reports sharpened with the publication of a 2003 humanitarian report by Watchlist and mainstream media articles (see here), the Enough Project’s 2009 strategy paper directly connected Congo’s mineral economy, western consumers and the use of sexual violence. Policies that were drawn in response to these publications were founded on the assumption that because armed groups draw on natural resources as source of funding and because there is a high prevalence of sexual violence, regulating the mineral trade and demilitarizing the mines will stop the rapes (for critiques on the ‘conflict minerals’ campaign, see here and here).

Yet, these considerations do not necessarily imply a direct causal relationship between resource extraction and sexual violence. It is indeed tempting to focus on the most visible aspects: the rapes, the physical destruction, the looting and pillaging of resources, the minerals used in our phone. However, the effects of this narrative are that it focuses on a narrow set of actors and spaces in DRC’s conflicts and roots each of those actors/spaces in particular ways while obscuring the role of others.

First, as shown by researchers Vogel and Musamba, the focus on artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) sites in particular builds on a broader problematic narrative of artisanal mining as a space of criminality and illegality which overlooks the ‘ambiguity’ of the mineral economy for men as well as women as spaces of opportunity as much as spaces of risk. In doing so it further roots the exercise of violence to armed (conflict) actors, such as rebel groups and the military acting on their own directive and fails to consider (sexual) violence enacted by other actors associated with the extraction of minerals in the DRC, such as corporate, government and state agents, and foreign NGO’s (including humanitarian staff and peacekeeping units), as well as civilian miners themselves. While rape in mining sites tends to be specifically associated with armed men, a 2015 World Bank report found that sexual predation by armed men was generally seen as less pressing of a concern than the everyday violence and abuse that women suffered from miners and other civilians.

Second, while instances of militarized mass rapes have occurred in the vicinity of mines, they do not necessarily present the greatest threat to those working in mining sites. Research shows that only focusing on rape in mining sites obscures specific gendered vulnerabilities in mining sites that go beyond conflict rape and rebel predation and are more related to access to employment, working conditions in the mines, prevalent gender norms and beliefs and weak political institutions. It further roots women to the position of victim disregarding the active role women voluntarily seek and play in mining, and in extractive communities in general (see herehere and here), even those controlled by armed groups.

Third, documented instances of rape show that rape very often accompanies a vast range of non-sexual abuse, in particular looting, killings and forced labor, which problematizes framings of sexual violence as the major form of violence that takes place in and outside of mining areas (see herehereherehere, and here). Rather, it coincides with other forms of coercion as a general pattern of civilian abuse. Reported cases of rape further illustrate that rapes occur as much as in fields, on the way to the market, when collecting water, at roadblocks, during prison visits, on patrols, at police stations, near military camps, and at homes, as in mining areas, which complicate framings of mining sites as the major site of sexual violence (see herehereherehere, and here).

The narrative of rape as a weapon of war to access minerals, resonates with western audiences because it establishes a clear victim-perpetrator setup: racialized and gendered rebels and soldiers against a terrorized population. In this sense it gives clarity and simplicity to an otherwise very complex, multi-actored and multi-layered conflict. While rape has indeed been used as part of a military or political strategy and ‘conflict minerals’ do play a role in the continuation of the armed conflict or at least partially fund some armed groups and state forces, nearly 10 years after the release of Enough’s paper, it remains crucial to understand the construction of this narrative, its political work and what it hides.

A longer version of this article will appear in a forthcoming edition of the African Studies Review.

About the Author

Dr Charlotte Mertens is a researcher at the University of Melbourne where she examines the use of colonial sexual violence in the Congo Free State and its endurance into contemporary eastern DRC.

Ann A. Laudati is a Social Science Research Fellow/Visiting Professor (Geography Department, UC Berkeley) whose work, since 2009, looks at the linkages between natural resources and violent conflict in the eastern DRC.

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