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16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence

Even in Conflict Areas, the Greatest Danger to a Woman Is Her Partner

While the world focuses on sexual violence perpetrated by clashing groups in conflict zones, researchers are warning that the real danger to women is being ignored: violence from their husbands, fathers and other men they know.

Written by Rumbi Chakamba Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The narrative around sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo usually focuses on conflict rape and assault, but research shows that Congolese women are also at high risk of being assaulted by men they know. (PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images)

Two decades of brutal armed conflict between various militia groups have earned the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) a reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the world for women. Rape and other forms of sexual violence have become commonly used weapons of war – there are no official figures, but human rights groups put the numbers of victims in the tens of thousands.

While conflict violence draws condemnation from the international community, some humanitarian groups – including, most recently, the International Rescue Committee – warn that another threat to women is being ignored. In some conflict situations, women are more likely to suffer sexual abuse at the hands of their partners than as targets of warring soldiers.

“For so long when we have been talking about gender-based violence in conflict areas, we are usually talking about armed militias; we are talking about soldiers; we are talking about rape as a weapon of war as the narrative,” says Maggie Sandilands, the head of the team investigating sexual violence in humanitarian response situations for Tearfund, a Christian charity based in the U.K.

“What we are now finding is that the story is really at a community level and around intimate partner violence,” she says.

“Even with non-partner sexual violence, the majority of perpetrators were known [to the women]; these were community members and family members rather than armed groups. So we also need to be working with communities and finding community-based solutions to address this.”

Findings from DRC

A recent Tearfund survey of more than 700 people in conflict-affected Ituri province, northeastern DRC, revealed that the most prevalent form of violence reported in the region was intimate partner violence, with 68.8 percent of women experiencing some form of it in the past 12 months.

The figure is consistent with 68.2 percent of men saying they had perpetrated intimate partner violence over the same period.

During the year, 38.4 percent of women said they had been targets of sexual violence by their partner, while 20.8 percent of them suffered violence perpetrated by someone else they knew.

The study found that only 8.5 percent of cases of non-partner sexual violence could be attributed to militias.

In Ituri province, DRC, 68.8 percent of women said they had experienced some form of violence from their partner, not militias, in the past 12 months. (Lionel Healing/AFP/Getty Images)

Researchers also found that the stigma of surviving sexual violence is high, with 37.1 percent of men believing that a man is justified in rejecting his wife if she has been raped.

Sandilands says the organization’s findings, while shocking, are not completely unexpected – or isolated. “This is only partly surprising,” she says. “There is research coming from contexts like South Sudan, Afghanistan and ours from the DRC, and this is a consistent finding across these different conflict contexts.”

Sandilands says there is a need for NGOs to “broaden the discussion” to look within communities for a solution. The Tearfund research found that faith groups, for example, “can be key in tackling the root causes of this violence,” she says.

The research report also recommended “not simply focusing on ‘rape as a weapon of war’ [but] ensuring that interventions address the root causes of violence at a community level, including harmful gender norms.”

Violence in Uganda

Eugene Kinyanda, who studies intimate partner violence in post-conflict eastern Uganda, agrees that gender identity plays a big part in this form of violence in conflict and post-conflict situations in sub-Saharan Africa.

Kinyanda says that although his research, which he carried out in his role as head of the mental health project at the MRC/UVRI Uganda Research Unit on AIDS, could not provide solid evidence that intimate partner violence increases in conflict situations – to do that it would have to be carried out before and after the conflict – anecdotal evidence suggests this is the case.

“When you talk to people and see the dynamics of what is happening, you can see that it’s most likely that the war has had an effect.”

“War wants to de-masculinize men. A group comes into their community and takes their wives and rapes them. They are forced to live in a camp,” he says.

“So men lose their ability to be breadwinners and their ability to protect their families. They may feel that the only way they can re-assert themselves as men is by beating their wives.”

This is part of a series of articles to mark the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign.

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