Sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: tradition opposes exclusion

03-03-2011 Feature

Victims of sexual violence often face further suffering through social exclusion. In the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, members of the community trained to provide psycho-social support by the ICRC encourage relatives and society to accept the victims on the grounds of custom. Sensitive subjects are broached through theatre or by traditional leaders.

A young woman falls to the ground weeping at the entrance to her house. “On my way back from market, I was attacked by strangers who threatened me with a weapon.” Her husband feels humiliated by what has happened to his wife, and throws her out.

It is a common scene in eastern Congo, an area torn for years by armed conflict. Here, rape is often experienced as shaming the entire family, which tries to cope by rejecting the victim of the attack. Banished from her community and usually lacking the wherewithal to survive, the latter then faces her suffering alone.   

In this case, however, the scene is part of a theatrical production, and the young woman weeping is an actress. The play has been put on to raise awareness in the community, to change how victims of sexual violence are perceived, and to fight against exclusion.  The event was organized, with help from the ICRC, by the maison d’écoute in Irangui (north of Bukavu), a counselling centre that welcomes victims of abuse.

The audience gets the message and responds accordingly.  “You’ve got to take her back!” an old woman shouts to the husband. "She's the mother of your children!" cries another.

Several hundred spectators of all ages crowd around a stage improvised on a football pitch. They are from nine neighbouring villages. Some of them have walked for hours through the bush to see the production.

A traumatic experience for the whole community

A group of people have come from a village consisting of little houses made of mud and straw, located on the edge of the Kahuzi-Biega national park. To reach the fields, the villagers regularly walk several kilometres and have to go through areas overgrown by forest, where armed men sometimes hide.

A few weeks ago, the little community suffered a painful blow.  Armed men kidnapped two
women who had set off for the fields at dawn. After surviving a sexual attack, one of the women managed to escape. Thanks to mediation by the traditional leaders, she was able
to return to her family.

“This conflict is a disaster,” says Misikami Nzbiro, who holds the honorific title of mwami (traditional chief), “we have to overcome its consequences and heal our wounds, otherwise we’ll pass on nothing but suffering to future generations.”

Wisdom of the traditional chiefs

Traditionally, mwamis are the guardians of morality, the ones who advise and soothe, but also who mobilize the community in order to find solutions. Misikami Nzbiro is one of the most active and committed among them. He has travelled hundreds of kilometres on his little motorbike in support of the production, in order to bring villagers together and mobilize the other traditional chiefs.

On the day of the performance, he is one of the first mwamis to address the audience, between a scene from the play and a traditional dance. “We have to learn to love our wives, our daughters and our sisters and to live with them, even after they have suffered an accident.  We must help them in every possible way to embrace life again,” he explains to an attentive audience of villagers.

The gathering is a novelty in the region, although the old people still remember back when, a few decades ago, it was the custom for people to get together for events that combined dancing, acting, and wise words from the traditional chiefs.

“It is part of our ancient traditions to get together, dance and talk things over in order to overcome a traumatic experience, although our customs have been much weakened by decades of conflict," says Mbila Mikindo, a psycho-social worker who counsels people who have suffered sexual violence. “The support of the traditional chiefs is essential in our battle to end the social exclusion of victims of sexual violence.”


In North and South Kivu:

  • The ICRC supports 47 psycho-social counselling centres, through training and donated goods.
  • These counselling centres are managed by local associations.  Over 200 psycho-social workers offer psychological support to victims, and direct them on to other health facilities.
  • Between October and December 2010, counselling centres supported by the ICRC looked after some 2,500 people, of whom about 1,500 were victims of sexual violence.
  • Eighty people from local communities are working to raise awareness, and to improve understanding of the issues involved and acceptance of the victims.
  • Some 35,000 people took part in awareness-raising meetings in the last quarter of 2010.       



South Hombo, in North Kivu.People from this village came to see the production.
© ICRC / P. Yazdi


The inhabitants of Bunyakiri performing the play about a woman who has been raped.
© ICRC / P. Yazdi


Misikami Nzbiro, a traditional chief, addresses local people during the show.
© ICRC / P. Yazdi