Combating conflict-related sexual violence at the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo

By Elena Schiatti

My name is Elena Schiatti and I serve as Women Protection Advisor in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with the UN Stabilization Mission (MONUSCO). Now working in Bukavu, South Kivu Province, I previously worked in Kasai Central province and was based in the provincial capital, Kananga, for a year. Between 2016 and 2018, this province witnessed a violent armed conflict between the Kamwina Nsapu militia and State security and defense forces. Human rights violations and abuses were committed by all parties and included brutal sexual violence that mainly targeted women and girls.

The conflict that started as a customary dispute, then snowballed into attacks that involved unimaginable acts of violence, carried out against entire villages as well as neighborhoods of Kananga, terrorizing the local population. Such incidents destroyed local social structures and forced thousands of people to flee across the province or to neighbouring Angola. The conflict left many scars and had a significant and enduring impact on the already weak infrastructural and economic development of the region, leaving much of the population in extreme poverty.

One key aspect of my work in Kananga was to support survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) to obtain justice and reparations, and to advocate for preventive measures so that these crimes would not be repeated. The UN defines CRSV as a form of sexual and gender-based violence that has geographical, political, temporal and economic links with a situation of conflict. Even though it disproportionally affects women and girls because of their lower socio-cultural power, CRSV has been also been perpetrated against men and boys during the wars that have torn the DRC apart since the 1990s.

As mandated by the Security Council, my role as Women Protection Advisor in the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) includes monitoring and investigating incidents of CRSV, strengthening multi-sectorial assistance to survivors, including their physical protection, and supporting national authorities and civil society organizations to address and prevent such gross violations.

I started to work on gender-related issues right after my studies. While working in various posts within European intergovernmental institutions, I gained first-hand experience of how gender inequality structurally affects global society, economies and democracies. It was during my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2018, working for UN Women, that I came to understand how gender-based violence could be used as a weapon of war. When I reached Kananga in February 2019, I was prepared for the difficult and sensitive assignment that laid ahead of me.

The role of Women Protection Advisor in a field office includes a variety of responsibilities. When I arrived in Kananga, I first established a network of partners from UN agencies, international and local NGOs, humanitarian actors and civil society organizations, in order to create a referral chain that I could activate when a CRSV case was reported to me, so that survivors could quickly receive assistance. While the most urgent support for survivors is medical assistance, sexual violence also causes immense psychological, economic and social harm. For this reason, it was important for me to know to whom I could refer survivors for appropriate care and to prevent additional trauma.

I also contributed to the Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Arrangements (MARA)by monitoring, documenting and reporting cases of sexual violence, verifying allegations and conducting interviews. I produced a monthly analysis of CRSV trends that serves to improve the response and strengthen the prevention of CRSV by MONUSCO and its partners. Documenting cases of sexual violence also contributes to accountability. I assisted judicial authorities in investigating and prosecuting sexual violence cases and ensured the safe participation in these processes of survivors, including by protecting their identity. I sometimes accompanied survivors during court hearings and helped with their relocation, if that was necessary for their protection.

Gender inequality and sexual violence must be addressed through an intersectional approach in order to tackle its roots sustainably. For this reason, mainstreaming the prevention of CRSV in the work of all MONUSCO entities, both civilian and uniformed components, has been another key endeavor for me. I work side by side with other MONUSCO components when dealing with CRSV cases: for instance, I follow up on judicial developments together with the Justice Support Section. I participate regularly in patrols by MONUSCO peacekeepers and monitoring missions in rural areas surrounding Kananga to ensure that any engagement between them and survivors is appropriate. Additionally, I facilitate training for the national armed forces and police of the DRC, as well as lawyers, human rights defenders and NGO staff on CRSV for the purpose of strengthening national prevention and response to these crimes.

There were and will continue to be many challenges in my work, the main one being access to sexual violence survivors. This was difficult due to the under-reporting of sexual violence in Kasai Province, as elsewhere in the DRC. Survivors are afraid to speak about what has happened to them due to high risk of retaliation and/or stigmatization, as they — rather than the perpetrators — are often seen by their communities and families as bearing responsibility for the suffering they have endured. In such patriarchal communities, where women survivors are often rejected by their families, male survivors do not dare to speak about sexual violence either.

Another challenge in my work is the language barrier, given that most survivors and witnesses communicate in their native languages. Even though I can always count on interpreters, it is more difficult to establish a meaningful connection, trust, and to understand how to best offer support when communicating through an interpreter. Lastly, the lack of transportation and poor condition of roads impedes investigations and prosecutions, as well as contribute to the impunity of many sexual violence perpetrators.

I am proud of what I achieved in Kananga, together with my colleagues and partners. Thanks to our referral system, dozens of women and girls received medical assistance. We managed to follow up with judicial authorities on around thirty CRSV cases, which led to the conviction of several perpetrators. Moreover, we assisted judicial authorities during investigations into the horrible crimes committed during the Kamwina Nsapu crisis by ensuring the protection of victims and witnesses, so they could safely participate in the investigation process and access adequate medical and mental health services. We also led fundraising efforts for projects to promote the socio-economic recovery of survivors.

After my experience in Kasaï Central province, in the very heart of the DRC, I am now working in South Kivu province on the Eastern border, where CRSV is also prevalent, and facing new and different challenges. Wherever I work, the main motivation that keeps guiding me remains those brief but very rewarding moments when I see the peaceful smile of a survivor of sexual violence who has seen justice served.

Elena Schiatti is a UN Volunteer from Italy, serving as Women Protection Advisor in the South Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo with MONUSCO, the UN Stabilization Missionin the DRC.

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