Republic of the Congo: Women used as weapons of war
Translated by: Marine El Hajji
For some of the Congolese, the wounds inflicted during the colonial era by the Belgian State have not healed to this day. The Belgian State, through extreme violence, dominated, exterminated and “civilized” an entire country. Although women were part of a minority to take up arms and go to the frontline, colonialism doubly affected them. These women’s bodies, mere sexual objects for some, were experimental grounds for so many others, and have been used in many ways but mostly as weapons of war.
Before the colonists’ arrival, women have been the ones in power in Africa. Which means that some governance systems were matriarchal. When they arrived, the colonists slaughtered thousands of individuals, imposed their own culture and new rules. As they were treated like slaves or people that needed to be “civilized”, the Congolese suffered all sorts of atrocities. The violence perpetrated against women was different, but also crueler and more continued.
The colonial era in the Congo
The colonial era can be broken down into two distinct periods. The first one runs from 1885 to 1908. It is a bloody period during which many massacres occurred. For 13 years, the Congo was the private propriety of the Belgian King Leopold II. The colonists imposed physical dominion upon the country and killed thousands of people. From 10 to 15 million people are believed to have died at that time. The colonists also erased, or at least tried to erase, a whole culture.
During this period, the woman’s body, as always in times of conflict, was seen as part of the “spoils of war”. As an article of the RTBF, Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (Belgian francophone Radio and Television) explains, “the body of women symbolizes just as much as anything else the ‘spoils of war’ taken over, by will or by force, by the Belgian colonists, thus sending a message of masculinist domination to Congolese men.” Women were subjected to different types of violence than men: they were murdered, raped, humiliated, kidnapped, etc.
Even now, women suffer the consequences of these acts of violence. In the book Sexe, race & colonies, Amandine Lauro and Lancelot Arzel explain the link between the unimaginable amount of rapes in the present Congo and the colonial era: “women are the ultimate war trophy. Even if the colonial authorities do not officially legitimate these “war booties”, they tacitly allow them. Taken hostage as means to force the enemy into submission, women are being subjected to specific acts of torture and rapes solely aimed at undermining the filiation and desecrating the blood lines that are at the core of these colonized societies.
The second colonial period – from 1908 to 1960 –was just as violent as the first one. King Leopold II gave the Congolese territory to the Belgian State and the Congo became a colony. It was the period of this attempt to “civilize” the country. The colonists wanted to dominate the country and to train administrative assistants – but had never intended to offer them positions which held a lot of responsibility. This obsession escalated to the point that in the 50s, the Congolese could receive, as a reward for their “good” behavior, cards or certificates “of evolved persons” – which were considered a civic achievement.
The woman’s body was used – and is still being used – as a war weapon. The Congolese women became mere sexual objects for the colonists and the militia. On many postcards, with an exotic landscape in the background, the Black woman is represented topless. The exotic landscape and the Black woman merge and become one. The RTBF explains this representation: “in the Congo, these women were part of the scenery, as we [the colonists] monopolize both the land and the women with it.”
As soon as they arrived, the colonists became obsessed with Black women. They were the subjects of many photography sessions, studies and observations from experts who used it to justify their racist comments. The perfect example is the study of their body compared to that of White people. Even today, in Belgium, the remains of skulls and bones used for these studies are still being discovered.
This example can be illustrated by the portrayal of the Congolese women depicted by the Reverend Father Vermeersch. He distinguishes three types of Congolese women. The first one is the polygamous woman. She is considered a slave. The second one is the housekeeper of the White man, and she is a sexual slave. Finally, the third one is the perfect woman who is the result of colonization: the Christian woman. This woman has been “freed” and deserves respect. The colonists make her believe that through submission, she will become the equal of the White woman.
At that time, feminism tried to be heard. The UFC, Union des Femmes Coloniales (Union of the Colonial Women), founded in 1924, was an organization that wanted to improve the living conditions of these women who followed their colonist husbands. Through this solidarity network, women helped each other. But the racial differences were still present for a vast majority of the group. Indeed, women received no education and were trained in fields seen as feminine by the colonists, such as sewing, cooking, housekeeping or childcare. Meanwhile, men were trained to be administrative assistants.
During the colonial era, women were only seen as a sexual objects or slaves. They were called “ménagères” (housekeepers) by the colonists. Rape was just another war weapon. The colonists wanted to get to the husband, the family, the community, etc, and this was a way to intimidate their opponent. An article of the French newspaper Libération speaks of a “geogenetical war”. And as a matter of fact, rape was used to obtain an “ethical cleansing that resulted in the birth of thousands of children”. In the magazine La Vie, in 2012, the doctor Denis Mukwege, gynecologist and human right activist in the Congo, said: “by making these women pregnant, the Interahamwe shattered the line of descent, thus creating a new ‘race’, a child that the husband and wife would be unable to recognize.” This man witnessed the atrocities perpetrated by the colonists, not only against his own relatives, but also against the thousands of women who came to his office after a rape, an excision, and so on.
The Congolese women were hypersexualized by the colonists, to the point that the representation of Black women was not only inaccurate but varied depending on the author’s fantasies. They were continuedly compared with European women, in regard to their lips, nose, hair, buttocks, breasts… The European women were seen as having perfect proportions and a more “formal” style.
The Congolese independence and the female revolution
After many wars, massacres and many other atrocities, the Congo declared its independence in 1960. This part of history unfolded but left out women. The major public figures of this period were all men, like Lumumba, Prime Minister and independence activist. Although History has forgotten them, Congolese women witnessed these atrocities. In a thesis conducted in 2006 about the involvement of women in conflict resolution in Congo Brazzaville, Maixent Cyr Itoua Ondetil explains what caused this inequality, and identifies the facts that link the colonial past to the present-day Congo.
The colonial past is still present in the Congolese society today. Social economy and pediatric trainings are exclusively undertaken by women, whereas industrial or administrative trainings are mainly conducted by men. But despite all of this, female education has been steadily increasing for the past few years, and more women are gaining access to fields with responsibility. This phenomenon involves nonetheless a small minority amongst women. They are numerous in the public sector, but not in the sectors that hold a lot of responsibilities, like the fields of medicine or engineering, and when they do work in these fields, most of the time they occupy positions of assistant or nurse.
All in all, women are slowly starting to rewrite the story of the Congo. But there is still a long way to go, and unfortunately, the wounds of the colonial era have not yet entirely faded away.