Sexual Violence and Motherhood in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

By Amy Holmes

Resilience and solidarity, hope and renewed health. Image by Platon, for The People’s Portfolio and Panzi Hospital and Foundations. © 2016

The aftermath of decades of civil war and instability across the African continent is still profoundly felt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by the thousands of women and girls for whom sexual violence is an everyday reality.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is situated in a crucible of conflict, and not only shares its borders with countries affected by conflict such as Angola, Sudan and Uganda, but also bears the legacy of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, from which thousands of the Tutsi ethnic minority fled persecution by the Hutu majority.

The fraught relations between ethnic groups, alongside the routine perpetration of sexual violence by state officials, militants and even by locals, ensure that torture and rape remain endemic in the region.

It is estimated that 48 women and girls are raped per hour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Susan Lloyd-Roberts, 2016; 248). Such is the scale of the problem that the 1998 Rome Statute ratified Gender Based Sexual Violence (GBSV) as an act of genocide due to  widespread devastation it has on communities, often lasting for generations.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, hundreds of thousands of women and girls are at risk, not only from their physical wounds but from the social and cultural consequences of sexual violence.

Photographer: Paolo Patruno for the Social Documentary Network


Although it is important to acknowledge that sexual violence has both male and female victims, the study of conflict-based sexual assault demonstrates that violence against women has specific consequences.

To illustrate the cultural ramifications of this type of violence, I refer to the work of American philosopher, Judith Butler.

Butler is notable for her vast contributions to the field of gender theory, and she argues that cultural attitudes in the context of war play a key role in particular defining what experience defines someone as a victim.

She addresses the consequences of sexual violence in her book, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? and puts forward the notion that sexual violence is not usually considered to be directly resulting from war time activity, as sexual violence is something of a normative, even during peacetime.

For Butler, sexual violence inflicted on women demonstrates existing inequalities that are exacerbated during conflict, leading to her assertion that war is perhaps the most extreme expression of inequality between men and women (Judith Butler, 2009).

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, strict moral codes such as those pertaining to honour and chastity are imposed upon women, as if their body’s honour are a direct belonging of the community, and as such, are instrumental to the strategic domination of communities by oppressive forces.

The stigma that is attached to sexual assault survivors, serves to fracture social cohesion within the groups that are targeted, and thus, displaces thousands of survivors from their communities; as they become estranged by the shame imposed upon them.


Many gender theorists argue that the work of the social anthropologist, Mary Douglas provides an accurate explanation of the stigma and shame associated with sexual violence. In her book, Purity and Danger, Douglas brings forward the notion of ‘the abject’ a person who embodies disorder, dirt and disruption or contamination of everyday life.

The idea that rape violates communal, marital and personal boundaries means that those who survive it, come to carry the symbolic, as well as the physical and emotional, injuries of their ordeal.

Women who survive sexual violence are frequently condemned by patriarchal society, and are labelled abject, because the boundary between the community and its enemies has been broken, thus allowing disorder and a ‘contamination’ by outside forces.


This is especially the case where a woman becomes pregnant from rape by outsiders; the baby that she carries comes to represent a blurring of ethnic boundaries, and presents a cultural crisis that threatens the potency of established traditions and social bonds.

Significantly, women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are seen to be symbols and repositories of their native culture, and through child-rearing and education, propagate the continuation of tradition. Therefore, the notion of motherhood represents a symbolic actualisation of cultural identity, not only within the sphere of the family, but within the broader local and ethnic community.

Esther, 17, with her son Josue. Image by Platon for The People’s Portfolio and Panzi Hospital and Panzi Foundations USA and DRC. © 2017


As stated by Blay-Tofey and Lee in their study of Cote d’Ivoire, “Violence represents a serious public health problem, that is an important cause of many physical and psychological illnesses, and can cause social disruptions that impede reconstruction efforts for generations.” (Blay-Tofey and Lee, 2015;341).

Although post-conflict strategies in Africa aim to improve the structural conditions across the continent, very little is often done to tackle the long-term inequalities that arise from the pervasive sexual violation and trauma experienced in the region.

Alongside the short-term damage and psychological trauma caused by sexual violence, women are at risk of myriad additional complications from their physical injuries, such as incontinence, miscarriage, permanent damage to the reproductive organs, fistula, sexually transmitted infections as well as infertility.

The brutality of these injuries is poignantly captured in a statement by Dr Denis Mukegwe, the director and chief surgeon of the Panzi Foundation, who said: “If you destroy enough wombs, there will be no children.” (Mukegwe, in Cannon, P, 2012; 483)


This statement recognises the strategic dimensions of GBSV in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and demonstrates the intention of rape as a way of violating a collective identity through the intrinsic link between the body of the mother and the lifeblood of the community.

The destruction of the womb becomes a symbol by which the vitality of the community is threatened; if there are no wombs to create children, there are no children to continue traditions and thus preserve the community itself.

The work of the Panzi Foundation and its contemporaries in the Democratic Republic of Congo provide hope, by rehabilitating mothers and restoring a sense of community cohesion through education and communication.

Rhythm exercises during music therapy at Maison Dorcas. Photo credit: Naama Haviv for Panzi Hospital and Foundations, September 2016


The Panzi Foundation provides health services to women who have suffered reproductive damage and related issues as a result of sexual violence, but also plays an important role in enabling these women to secure work and support their families (Cannon, 2012; 480).

Through access to healthcare and education, service users are also empowered to subvert the stigma that was once attached to their injuries by restoring their worth as caregivers and mothers.

Although Trenholm et al assert that a focus on motherhood “ignores the fundamental individual humanity” (Trenholm et al, 2015; 494-495) of women who have survived sexual violence, I argue in this final discussion that motherhood provides a strategic means of rebuilding a displaced identity in the aftermath of assault.


The formation of a community of survivors demonstrates the potential for motherhood as an innovative means of recovery and empowerment “the community of women creates unity- one life” (Mama Jeanne, in Kumar, 2015).

This is a vital insight into the way in which motherhood can reassert itself against the perceived stigma of sexual violence, where the mother was once rendered incapable of acting as “guardian of moral and ethical values” (Meger, 2010; 127). Instead, the role of mother, or ‘Mama’ becomes vital to the destabilisation of normalised assumptions about sexual violence.

The high prevalence of sexual assault means that rape has become a normalised behaviour amongst Congolese men, that is enacted on women as a form of punishment or dominance. From a young age, those who see rape as a corrective or coercive practice are likely to take on board the idea that it is an acceptable form of social interaction thus creating a cycle of sexually violent behaviour.

Rebecca ‘Mama’ Masika Katsuva, a prominent sexual assault campaigner and activist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Foundations such as Panzi and Heal Africa are vital to the rehabilitation and breakdown of this cycle, and of the normative recognition of sexual violence; offering treatment and education to survivors enables them to challenge the acceptability of rape and thus destabilise its place in Congolese society (Cannon, 2012; 480).

‘Mama’, therefore, becomes a label of optimism; despite, and perhaps because of the legacy of sexual violence, survivors can educate and raise children, and once again re-establish themselves as the core of the community.

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