Oppression of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “the Rape Capital of the World”

Despite having a constitution that enshrines equality between the sexes, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is home to some of the most extreme and brutal oppression of women. This demonstrates in a very vivid manner that women’s oppression cannot be eliminated simply through legal rights, but requires certain material conditions, which in turn must be fought for in the shape of a class struggle. (The author of this article recently visited the DRC where he found a country ravaged by imperialism and where the oppression of women was extremely acute.)

“The public authorities see to the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and ensure the protection and promotion of their rights.” So reads Article 14 of the 2006 Constitution of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), nominally one of the most progressive in the world in terms of the guarantee of equality between women and men. And yet, in 2010, a senior UN official described the DRC as “the rape capital of the world”[1], a place in which so little regard is given by armed groups of men to the humanity of women that rape is used not as an expression of power over an individual but as a weapon of war to humiliate and degrade entire families and communities.

There can be no greater abuse of the rights of a woman than to make her the victim of sexual violence, so how do the epidemic proportions of this brutal practice square with the dazzlingly enlightened constitution of the DRC? Using a materialist analysis and understanding the experiences of the Congolese people we can explain the origins of, nature of and solution to the inequality between the sexes in the DRC.

One of the accusations levelled at Joseph Kabila, the current President of the DRC, is that he is more concerned with the appearance of his country to the outside world than with the reality of living conditions within it. While the country’s Constitution proudly presents to the world the polished face of a legal system which respects the rights of women, the country’s 1998 Family Code tells a murkier story:

- A wife owes obedience to her husband as the head of the household (Article 444)

- A husband’s permission is required in order for a wife to effect a legal act (Article 450)

- Only a husband has a right to establish a matrimonial home (Article 454)

- Adultery by a husband is penalised in a more limited range of circumstances than adultery by a wife which is penalised in all circumstances (Article 467)

As it is in the law, so it is in other areas of Congolese life. The Government of the DRC boasts a Ministry of Gender, Family and Children – a department charged with working to promote equality between women and men, run by Madame Marie-Ange Lukiana. But below the apparently calm surface of a government committed to championing the rights of women, we find the tumultuous currents of discrimination resulting in only 7.2% of political positions in the DRC being held by women despite the fact that women make up 63% of the electorate.

The conviction of a former Colonel in February 2011 for ordering an attack which resulted in the rape by his soldiers of more than 35 women echoed through news stories around the world as an example of progress in the DRC, but this echo has been drowned out by the release of a report by Amnesty International in August 2011 which has documented the continued use of sexual violence against women by the Army and other armed groups in the DRC.[2] The unequivocal promise in the Constitution that public authorities will promote equality between the sexes is proved to be nothing but empty rhetoric by the cold fact that while 12% of men are in state-waged employment, the same can be said for only 2.8% of women.

Conversations with the Congolese themselves add a chilling human dimension to the steely evidence of institutionalised discrimination. According to one mid-level local government official, sex-based violence is simply a cultural norm. Explanations for violence against women ranging from “the man is usually provoked by the woman” to “by hitting a woman a man is really showing his love for her” illustrate an ingrained understanding of women as inherently different from men in terms of their behaviour and emotions. But this concept of inherent difference is adopted and accepted by women as well as men with both sexes believing that “a woman must always marry an older man” and “a woman must be less intelligent than her husband” because otherwise “she will not obey her husband and will go mad and do crazy things” (in the words of a 15 year old boy) – an affliction to which men are apparently immune.

So why is the situation in the DRC one of such manifest sexual inequality despite the official, albeit somewhat flimsy, cover of parity between men and women?

Engels’ theory on the origins of the family

To answer these questions we can turn to the method of historical materialism and Engels’ work The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. Engels’ discussion centres on early human history and the transition between societies based on subsistence methods of production and those based on surplus-creating methods of production, respectively known as Palaeolithic/Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic in modern archaeological terminology.

Engels draws on the research of Morgan to establish that in the Palaeolithic era of subsistence production two important facts were clear. Firstly, labour was divided along the lines of sex due to the biological fact that women were required in the “home” for pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. Secondly, recognition of the pivotal role of women in the continued development of society prompted cultivation of a symbiotic relationship between all the women and men of a particular clan rather than the parasitic relationship of the modern patriarchal family. As Engels points out in his description of Palaeolithic society:

“Communistic housekeeping, however, means the supremacy of women in the house; just as the exclusive recognition of the female parent, owing to the impossibility of recognizing the male parent with certainty, means that the women – the mothers – are held in high respect.”[3]

However, as human society developed, so too did the means of production and, with the advent of the Neolithic revolution, the widespread use of farming practices meant that, for the first time in human history, a surplus of goods above and beyond what was needed for basic survival was created. This fundamental change in the mode of production brought with it fundamental changes in the social organisation of Neolithic society. Not only did the creation of surplus pave the way for the development of class distinctions based on how much surplus one clan was able to produce relative to another, it also created a relationship of inequality between men and women. The centre of production shifted from the household to the fields, agriculture and cattle rearing producing surplus and being male occupations, this led to a dominant role of the male in the family.

As more surplus wealth was created, men were able to assert themselves as more important than women within families by virtue of their ability to satisfy more of the immediate needs and wants of the family. Thus the notion of the private ownership of surplus goods is the cornerstone of a society in which men hold power over women.

This newly acquired economic power manifested itself most significantly through a change to the laws of inheritance within families. In order that the male was able to pass his surplus wealth on to his children the line of inheritance had to shift from the mother to the father, but this presented the problem that communistic living and transient relationships meant that the biological father of many children was not easily ascertainable. The solution to this problem was marriage which could be used to enforce monogamy upon women in order that men could guarantee the “legitimacy” of the children to whom they would bequeath their wealth. Engels describes this shift in the power dynamics of families as follows:

“The overthrow of mother-right [of inheritance] was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.”

Control and dominance of women by men arose alongside the control and dominance of one class by another. Both forms of exploitation are the product of privately owned surplus wealth and as long as such private property exists, class and sex based exploitation will also exist.

So how does this analysis help us in explaining why sexual inequality in the DRC has such firm roots? To answer this we must briefly examine a history of the Congolese economy. The DRC economy is one of the weakest in the world with 2010 estimates placing it as the joint second poorest country in the world with a GDP per capita of only US$200 and an average life expectancy of 47. Unemployment stands at around 40%, and even those in employment are not guaranteed to be paid on time or at all. This stands in juxtaposition to the estimated wealth of the Country’s natural resources at over $24 trillion and this contrast provides fertile conditions for foreign mining and timber companies to exploit the people and resources of the DRC.

Brief history of the DRC

The modern practices of foreign businesses range from exploitation of child labour to financing armed groups which still operate in the East of the country in the hope that continued political fragility can work to their financial advantage. But these imperialist practices are not a new phenomenon for the people of the DRC. The Congo Free State was formed around 1890 as the private property of King Leopold II of Belgium. The exploitation by Leopold of both the people and the environment in pursuit of cheap rubber became one of the worst scandals of the 19th Century.

The Belgian government claimed that their annexation of the country from the King in 1908 represented progress for the Congolese people, but in reality the opening of the country to the ravages of the free market simply legitimised in the eyes of the Western world the same exploitation by a plethora of companies as had been practiced by Leopold’s monopoly.

By 1960 with the growing Congolese independence movement Belgian imperialism was forced to relinquish direct control of the country. However, the Belgian imperialists were not going to give up the most naturally wealthy country on the planet without a fight, so while granting formal independence they aimed to continue controlling the country’s wealth through other means. They felt threatened by Lumumba’s increasingly radical nationalist stance and deliberately fomented secessionism in Katanga. Katanga’s declaration of independence in 1960 was the result of a plot by Belgian business interests to create a puppet state and took place with the backing of 6,000 Belgian troops. Belgian imperialism, aided by the CIA, supported Mobutu’s coup against Lubumba, who was subsequently assassinated in 1961.

Mobutu’s dictatorial rule of the country he renamed Zaire lasted until 1997. The regime was a Bonapartist one and its rule saw Mobutu appeal to the nationalism of the people by insisting on a purge of all colonial influences from the country. He renamed the major cities, prohibited any Western names or clothing and renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga, which roughly translates as “The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and iron will to succeed, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake”.

He cultivated this strong-man image by banning all opposition political parties and occasionally holding elections in which he and his party were the only candidates. However, as mass opposition mounted, often resulting in riots and rebellions against his regime, he leaned on the Army for support as well as turning to the USA for help crushing the rebellions. The support of the USA was due to Mobutu’s strong anti-communist politics and this protection allowed him to plunder and abuse the people and country of Zaire without repercussions. Some estimates suggest that at one time he had amassed a personal fortune equal to the national debt of the entire country.

The ravaging of the DRC by capitalist imperialism ever since its creation, coupled with the bloodiest war since the Second World War which was fought on its territory between 1997 and 2003, exclusively by Nations and armed groups with mining interests in the country, has left the economy weak, unregulated and wide open to yet more exploitation by foreign state owned and private companies, and it is Congolese women for whom this burden is heaviest.

Class structure and the political Left in the DRC

By virtue of the fact that these foreign companies are the only businesses able to guarantee a secure job, the wages are low and there is barely a trace of union activity – with such a large unemployed population anything even remotely antagonistic to one’s employer is seen as a dangerous move. The underdeveloped nature of the country is seen in the fact that only 35% of the Congolese population live in urban areas, with the rest spread out over the vast rural stretches of the country. However, this relative weakness of the urban working class is not and never has been a reason for renouncing a genuine socialist policy. The Bolsheviks in the conditions of Russia 1917, where the working class was also very weak numerically, demonstrated that even where the working class is a minority, with a correct revolutionary programme, it can gather around itself the agricultural labourers, the poor peasants and other poor layers in society. Today, if there were a mass party of the workers which appealed to revolutionary anti-imperialism in a serious way, such a party would gain massive support in the Congo, regardless of the class composition of the country. The lack of a serious socialist organisation is where the problem lies.

Although he categorically denied being a communist, Prime Minister Lumumba was motivated by a strong desire to free the Congo and the whole of Africa from the influences of “those bent on ruling Africa”. He encouraged pan-African unity and special trade agreements between African nations. He was clear that his country’s policy towards foreign nations would be dictated solely by their policy towards the Congo. Thus when the Western capitalist states met his government with hostility and antagonism, he turned to the USSR for help. His association with the USSR caused Lumumba to increasingly move towards the Left, and his speeches railing against “mercantile exploitation” and lauding the “social and economic revolution of our great and beloved country”, as well as his emphasis on the roles of both sexes in the struggle for African freedom, resonated with the Congolese workers and youth.

Lumumba’s murder took place in 1961 but the material conditions for his ideas were still present so that, in 1965, Che Guevara and a group of around 150 Cubans arrived in the Congo to help Laurent Kabila, a self-proclaimed Marxist guerrilla who would become (a decidedly non-Marxist) President in 1997, in his efforts to spark a socialist revolution. The failure of these efforts and the rise of Mobutu crushed and disfigured all Left political thought in the country to the extent that few modern political parties which declare themselves loyal to Lumumba’s ideas are able to coherently explain what those ideas actually were.

Trotsky’s theory of the Permanent Revolution explains that in the more backward countries, where the bourgeoisie has come on to the scene of history too late to play an independent role from imperialism, the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution can only be carried out and completed by the working class. Unless the working class is led by a revolutionary party, then the local weak bourgeoisie, acting as mere errand boys of the imperialists, will continue to dominate the country. Without a lead from the working class, the mass of peasants are kept under the influence of the local elite, who also have an interest in applying the method of “divide and rule” within their own country, and among these is the divide between men and women.

This social situation means that the peasantry will swing between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, constantly vacillating between the two:

“[A]n insurmountable obstacle on the road to the creation of a peasants’ party is the petty-bourgeoisie’s lack of economic and political independence and its deep internal differentiation. By reason of this the upper sections of the petty-bourgeoisie (of the peasantry) go along with the big bourgeoisie in all decisive cases, especially in war and in revolution; the lower sections go along with the proletariat; the intermediate section being thus compelled to choose between the two extreme poles.”[4]

Trotsky points out that this does not mean that the peasantry cannot play a role in the democratic revolution, but it does mean that such a revolution will never be successful in overthrowing bourgeois dominance without leadership by the working class organised into a Communist party.

It is worth noting, however, that the social and economic situation in which the DRC currently finds itself is not unique in terms of world history. At the close of the 19th Century, when the Congo Free State was barely a decade old, those struggling against the bourgeoisie in Russia were grappling with a landscape not unlike that of modern day DRC: an extremely large country with a majority of its population distributed throughout the country rather than being concentrated in towns; the small working class sections of the urban population were exploited to an extreme degree due to the plentiful supply of cheap labour power; some of the world’s largest supplies of minerals which were poorly managed by the ruling regime; and severe inequality of women among the peasantry.

The Russian working class, though weak in numbers in comparison to the peasantry, effectively lead the peasants in the revolution of February 1917 – which, by the way, was sparked off by women workers protesting – and to the establishment of the provisional government. That government, after being exposed in the eyes of the masses as a mere tool of the bourgeoisie, eventually gave way to the socialist revolution of October 1917, a transition which was only made possible by the presence of the Bolshevik party, without which the revolution would have been crushed. Alan Woods highlights the importance of the preparatory work of the Bolsheviks in that period in ensuring the victory of the socialist revolution in his book ‘Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution’:

“By skilful and flexible tactics, the Bolsheviks succeeded in drastically increasing their influence in the soviets in the months before October, to the point where, together with their allies, they could command a majority at the Soviet Congress. That, and that alone, explains the relatively peaceful character of the October insurrection. The reason was not primarily military, but the fact that nine-tenths of the work had already been accomplished beforehand. The most vital arena of struggle was in the soviets themselves.”

Following the victory of the Russian proletariat in October 1917 the workers set about abolishing capitalism, thus setting the material basis for eradicating the oppression of women. They began to address the rampant inequality between the sexes that was the hallmark of the tsarist regime, having learnt through the revolutionary struggle that sex-based differences are fomented and exploited by the ruling elite in any form of society based on private ownership of the means of production. Advances were made in the socialisation of childcare and cooking; women and men were paid equally for the same work; rights to abortion and contraception were introduced; and maternity leave was extended and legally enshrined.

The solution to women’s oppression in the DRC

This comparison with the achievements of the working class in Russia in the early 20th Century can lead us neatly into an analysis of what the future holds for the people of the DRC.

Through analysis of Russia’s experience and with the aid of Trotsky’s writings on the family, as Marxists we can offer only one answer to the DRC’s problems, concisely summed up by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, “Abolition of private property”, i.e. expropriating the commanding heights of the economy and placing them under the democratic control of the masses for the benefit of society. Only through a planned economy based on socialist principles can working hours be reduced, housework be socialised and women be set free of male dominance. As Trotsky explains in the context of Russia after the 1917 Revolution:

“We need more socialist economic forms. Only under such conditions can we free the family from the functions and cares that now oppress and disintegrate it. Washing must be done by a public laundry, catering by a public restaurant, sewing by a public workshop. Children must be educated by good public teachers who have a real vocation for the work. Then the bond between husband and wife would be freed from everything external and accidental, and the one would cease to absorb the life of the other. Genuine equality would at last be established.”[5]

Unfortunately there is no party offering such a perspective to the Congolese working class at the moment. There is, on the other hand, a seemingly infinite multitude of human rights charities currently operating in the DRC, NGOs and other organisations, some of which are specifically tasked with women’s rights, and some of which take a more general approach to human rights. The problem in the Congo, as in all underdeveloped countries is that NGOs play a pernicious role by their very nature of being based on charity and not struggle or self-organisation. They are completely dependent on and accountable to their Western funders, not the people in the country. In fact, they were created precisely to cut across militant class struggle and promote ideas such as “empowerment of the people”, which means nothing, because it does not involve overthrowing the very system that creates the problems the NGOs are supposed to combat!

A materialist perspective shows us that the ideas of people are a product of their material conditions of existence and not the other way around. All ideology, including cultural practices and concepts of ethics and morality, are not universal truths that exist independently of historical conditions. As Trotsky explains when describing the development of ideas during the early 20th Century:

“They [the petty-bourgeoisie] do not understand that morality is a function of the class struggle; that democratic morality corresponds to the epoch of liberal and progressive capitalism; that the sharpening of the class struggle in passing through its latest phase definitively and irrevocably destroyed this morality; that in its place came the morality of fascism on one side, on the other the morality of proletarian revolution”[6]

The concept of sexual equality, like all ideas in society, gains strength as the material conditions change and as the productive forces at the base of society change. The dominant ideas in society are those of the ruling class as these are transmitted down into society through various means, such as the education system, the media, the Church, etc. However, at the same time, through the process of coming together in the class struggle, people’s ideas and attitudes do change, including in relation to the role of women.

For example, Mary Wollstonecraft published ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ in 1792 during the Industrial Revolution in Britain, and Marx famously pointed out that the ideas of scientific socialism (i.e. Marxism) were only possible giventhe historical conditions present in his time and the preceding development of scientific, economic, and philosophical thought.

To expect to be able to achieve full sexual equality without changing the material base is therefore a utopian fantasy. That does not mean that Marxists renounce on the struggle for women’s rights in all countries and all conditions. What it does mean is that Marxists explain within the labour movement that to achieve genuine, and long lasting sexual equality, what is required is the expropriation of the commanding heights of the economy, the taking over of the land, the banks, and the limited industries that exist. By doing so, the class interests of the old propertied class of capitalists are eliminated, including their need to divide the workers by all means, and the material basis for genuine equality can be established once and for all.

However, to this analysis we must add one very important point, and that is that the abolition of private property in the DRC alone would not be sufficient to achieve these goals. Trotsky’s theory of the Permanent Revolution warns us against ‘socialism in one country’ and history is littered with the carcasses of states which tried and failed to implement ‘socialism in one country’. Furthermore, whilst the DRC is home to an abundance of wealth in the form of natural resources, the methods of production in the DRC have not been developed to a stage where they could support a socialist economy on their own. This does not mean that the Congolese people are doomed to wait for capitalism to develop to a higher stage. Instead it means that the struggle of the workers and peasants in the DRC must be part of a general struggle for socialism in Africa. The struggles in Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa show that when the when the working class in Africa move, they can be an unstoppable force.

In turn, the movement for socialism in Africa must be accompanied by revolutionary struggles in the rest of the world. It is the international class struggle which provides hope for the emancipation of Congolese women as part of the emancipation of the human race from the shackles of capitalism. Only through a materialist understanding of history can we explain the situation of the Congolese and all women and only through struggle on the part of the international working class can we hope to eliminate the oppression of women. As Marxists we must do all we can to work for the victory of the working class and international socialism, and such a victory will bring with it the only true emancipation of women throughout the world.



[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8650112.stm

[2] The Time For Justice Is Now: New Strategy Needed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Amnesty International, August 2011

[3] The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State; Engels; Chapter 2, Part 3

[4] Trotsky; The Permanent Revolution; 1931

[5] Trotsky; From the Old Family to the New; 1923

[6] Trotsky; Their Morals and Ours; 1938