Security Sector Roles in Sexual and Gender-based Violence

Democratic Republic of Congo’s sexual violence epidemic is not only a weapon of ongoing violent conflict but an expression of entrenched systemic problems. Indeed, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is most commonly perpetrated by the security services in place to protect civilians. In Quartier Panzi in South Kivu province, innovative processes of security sector reform and strengthened police-civilian channels of communication may be providing an opportunity for change.   

Meeting of victims of sexual violence in the Walungu, South Kivu in Democratic Republic of the Congo. Source: Wikipedia

Meeting of victims of sexual violence in South Kivu,  Democratic Republic of the Congo. Source: Wikipedia (from USAID)

Quartier Panzi—the populous, restive neighborhood of Bukavu, South Kivu province—is renowned in international development circles as the ground zero of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s sexual violence epidemic. Rape as a weapon of war is not so much perpetrated by enemy forces but, most often, by the very parties sent by Kinshasa to protect and serve civilians. Much as Selma, Alabama was to the American civil rights movement, Panzi’s ongoing tragedy has transformed the area into a vibrant arena for grassroots opposition and international solidarity in the fight to restore women’s bodies and lives. Women’s organizations have formed to denounce continued abuses and government denial, to reverse cultural stigmas around female culpability in rape, and to demand trial for Congolese security forces suspected of sexual abuses.

The courage and commitment of Dr. Denis Mukwege, chief gynecologist at Panzi Hospital and twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, is emblematic of this resilience. International networks like V-Day and Women for Women International support these local actions and fund sanctuaries for survivors, such as the City of Joy. These innovations aim to be restorative and empowering for survivors, focusing on the crisis as experienced by women and girls, offering healing and vocational training options otherwise non-existent. However, the causes of this specific form of cruelty and degradation, rooted in violent masculinities and impunity among security actors, remain unaddressed.

Rewiring the security sector

Congolese soldiers march in Walikale, DRC, 2011. Source: ENOUGH (Flickr)

Congolese soldiers march in Walikale, DRC, 2011. Source: ENOUGH (Flickr)

Like any deep malaise, Congo’s rape crisis is but one expression of entrenched, systemic problems. Local witnesses, security analysts and medical professionals who treat survivors present overwhelming evidence that the primary perpetrators are uniformed Congolese security actors. A weak justice system may be responsible for the failure to discipline or punish perpetrators, but the sources of this behavior lie within the security sector itself. Accessing the security elite, Congo’s infamous ‘black box’, is notoriously difficult. As a result, very little analysis exists of the problem from the perpetrators’ perspective: analysis and evidence that deciphers the institutional culture and internal organization of the security sector, or that maps relations between senior officers, politicians and economic actors. By design, opacity reigns supreme.

A variety of international donors support the national army and police with numerous ‘train and equip’ initiatives, an international cooperation model unchanged since the Cold War.These ‘security development’ partnerships aim to strengthen national capacity through field and classroom training and equipment upgrades; behavior change and public accountability are not part of the approach. Within the security services, there is typically an absence of civilian oversight, and widespread rent-seeking and illicit trade in protected flora, fauna and minerals, but no questions are asked by international partners, as diplomacy and formality dominate.

Supply-side approaches such as these long pre-date the advent of ‘security sector reform’ among development actors, which does seek behavior change and greater accountability. The older aid modality remains popular with the Congolese leadership because it expressly avoids any calling to account or inculcation of security as a public service and legal right.

There is state and donor complicity in all of this. Strength without constraint or accountability defines the DRC’s security sector today. Its predatory practices range from unchecked rape and pillage in the East to the repression of free speech and public inquiry, as witnessed by the 2010 murder in Kinshasa of prominent human rights activist, Floribert Chebeya. To placate critics, a military tribunal mounted a kangaroo court in the wake of the murder; the film documenting and exposing its empty theatrics, L’Affaire Chebeya, Un Crime d’Etat, remains banned in Congo.

Such officially sanctioned practices and attitudes are salient features of the Congolese state since independence, and well known to all Congolese. In the early 1970s, President Mobutu Sese Seko began encouraging civil servants and security forces to ‘feed on the population’ (“Population baza bilanga ya bino). Anecdotes such as these are more than flippant asides; they explain the persistent appeal of this patrimonial compact (across four chapters of Congolese leadership: Mobutu, Kabila père, transitional government, Kabila fils) as a declaration of complicity between political elites and the entire public sector. In its truncated audacity, this single utterance reconfigures and reduces the entire means and ends of the state to elite enrichment and group impunity.

In Panzi, armed crime and physical/sexual assault reached unprecedented levels in the aftermath of the primary war in South Kivu province. State security had long colluded with local armed gangs, and popular recourse options ranged from individual vengeance to military tribunals, as civil courts are unreliable. Mob justice is also widely practiced. The formation of neighborhood watch groups raised local hopes for improved safety (e.g. SAJECEKForces Vives). Despite their initial popularity, they soon joined local police and armed gangs in perpetrating the very crimes they first sought to oppose.

How urban police understand this license to extort and harass the population, and the higher interests these practices serve, has been well captured and analyzed by Maria Eriksson Baaz and Ola Olsson. Transforming Congo’s security sector from inside is an elusive challenge, and donors are struggling to develop the programmatic savvy, influence and access to inspire the necessary political will.

Demand for reform

Community meeting in Kananga, DRC, where security officials and civilian leaders converse directly with local community leaders. Source: DAI Europe (with permission)

Community meeting in Kananga, DRC, where security officials and civilian leaders converse directly with local community leaders. Source: DAI Europe (with permission)

The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) has experimented with alternative supply-and-demand models of public sector reform, and is applying these to the Congolese National Police (PNC). According to this strategy, supply-side ‘train and equip’ assistance targets weak service areas, including the prevention of and response to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). This is complemented by efforts to mobilize popular demand for more responsive policing at the community level.

A particular understanding of the partner institution, the PNC, informed this theory of change. This included the hypothesis that payment of regular salaries would not end extortion and rent-seeking (’tracasseries’) by the PNC, given the scale of these rackets and the enormous sums they generate. With no compelling alternative on offer, and as long as ‘reform’ is understood to involve replacing tracasseries with ‘protecting and serving’, change will elude would-be reformers. Given that such arrangements will not change in the forseeable future, the more nuanced strategy accommodates the reality of low, irregular salaries and uniformed extortion for the foreseeable future, and seeks behavior change through increased public-police interaction. Faster paced improvements in human security and responsive policing began emerging on the demand side of the pilot sites, including Bukavu and Quartier Panzi in particular.

Launched in Bukavu, Matadi and Kananga in 2009, the Security Sector Accountability and Police Reform Programme (SSAPR) is distinct for coupling its community policing approach with regular neighborhood meetings (forums du quartier) where locally appointed representatives voice their security concerns, identify emerging threats and suspects. It is common for community policing programs to seek a more responsive, service-oriented local police, but SSAPR is distinguished by its effort to cultivate citizen networks at the most local level to identify and articulate their fears, threats and suspicions forward to the actors most able to respond. Police officers, urban administrators, local community and neighborhood leaders then meet regularly in informal, local security councils to discuss proposals for containing a threat or resolving a violent dispute, as equipment and manpower are often lacking. Initiated entirely informally, these experiments in public relations gradually began to change expectations, reinforce collaboration and gain momentum.

Concurrently, the National Parliament submitted a motion to formalize the Conseils Locaux pour la Sécurité de Proximité(or CLSP, finally passed in late 2013), which recognizes the right of civilian representatives to participate in official security discussions at the municipal level. Over three years, SSAPR legal advisers worked with national parliamentarians to build support and draft a bill. Given the long-standing animosity between politicians and civil society, this new décret was a highly significant opening. The platform has since been incorporated into other police reform efforts (such as the European Union’s EUPOL) that also understand SSR in the Congolese context as primarily a governance challenge requiring civilian involvement.


Community meeting in Kananga, DRC, where security officials and civilian leaders engage directly with local community leaders. Source: DAI Europe (with permission)

Raising security problems through the CLSP increased dialog between communities and security officials, but who would represent the civilian side? In rough urban neighborhoods like Panzi, citizens experience a host of threats, not all of them equally or in the same way. The SSAPR helped Panzi neighborhood chiefs and community leaders coordinate an informal system whereby youth, women and men would alternately represent their community concerns first to a forum de quartier, then directly on to the CLSP. This neighborhood dynamic continues today across Bukavu’s three communes.

Making Progress?

These are small steps toward a more accountable security sector and restored public trust, but has sexual assault around Panzi declined as a result? Recently the SSAPR helped a women’s NGO organize a nocturnal walk through several Bukavu neighborhoods, including Panzi, to record their own safety concerns as well as those of women and girls met along the way. In a recent meeting, NGO members insisted they would never before have visited these neighborhoods, particularly at night, but that the chance to report their findings to a receptive and interested police commisariat justified the risk.

In response, new light fixtures are planned in darkened alleys where assaults have occurred, and patrols redirected to suspicious areas noted by the NGO delegation. In another pilot city, Kananga (Kasai Occidental), assaults on women and girls who were walking long distances to fetch water, often at night, decreased dramatically after local women lobbied for regular police patrols in these areas. This, in itself, was indicative of a greater local confidence in the police as protectors.

Community police units are involved in implementing these changes, but they represent a small minority of the PNC. It is unknown if these lower rates of sexual violence are attributable to behavior change among uniformed security or if the increased patrols and better lighting are deterring other possible assailants. Retrospective studies have been conducted, but no consensus exists on the total quantitative extent of SGBV in DRC, where just one in twenty cases is thought to be reported to authorities. Nor are cases raised with the police guaranteed to be registered or pursued. Impunity persists due to a weak national justice system, as well.

Other insights emerge from this experience, particularly around ‘bottom-up’ approaches to renewed legitimacy in fragile states. In the DRC, where central government continues to stall on commitments to decentralization and provincial institutions exploit this limbo (enrichment via parallel markets; legal and financial opacity) leaving communities in the breach, these small successes show that by investing at the periphery—that most-local interface where citizens and public service providers meet in person—bridges of trust and respect can be built through participatory problem solving. Communities can show resilience and security services can prove they are responsive and effective.

Edward Rackley is a Security and Governance consultant for the World Bank, based in Washington DC. He provides periodic technical and strategic advice to the SSAPR program via DAI Europe, one of the program’s managing agents. (The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of these institutions.)

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