Interview with Justine Masika Bihamba: Acting against sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo

28 February 2024

Justine Masika Bihamba was born in 1965 in Butembo, North Kivu, in the DRC, a country ravaged by endless conflicts for over thirty years. As a co-founder of the Synergy of Women for Victims of Sexual Violence (SFVS), she tirelessly travels the world to call on international bodies, challenging their often resounding silence.


  • In your latest book “Femme debout face à la guerre” (L’aube, March 1, 2024), you prosecute rape as a weapon of war. To what extent does this crime committed against women and girls contribute to the “disruption of the world”?

Rape, particularly in the context of war, is not aimed at sexual pleasure. When children are victimized in front of their parents, or when sharp objects are inserted into women’s genitals, rape’s sole purpose is destruction. When an entire village is raped, it leads not only to destruction but also to a disruption of the world. Indeed, the victims—whether children or adults—are traumatized for life. Their entire existence is thrown into disarray. Combatants consider women sacred. This is why rape is used as a weapon to destroy a man: it leads to dishonoring his wife so that he is left powerless.


  • What is your background? What personally drove you to advocate for women’s rights?

I was born into a “normal” family: my father was a merchant, and unlike many other women of my generation who couldn’t study, I had that chance and lacked nothing. When I finished my studies and had to find a job, I joined a local organization that focused on peasant women. From my experience with them, I understood that women hold the strength and power to change things, but they themselves are unaware of their capacity. Consequently, they need support, and that’s why I decided to advocate for women’s rights. At the time, these women had brought to our attention a common observation: when they went to the fields to cultivate the land, they were systematically subjected to abuse and sexual violence, particularly during times of war.


  • You founded the Synergy of Women for Victims of Sexual Violence in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. What are the missions of this coalition?

In response to the need to unite our efforts and end sexual violence, we founded the Synergy of Women for Victims of Sexual Violence twenty years ago. Within this organization, each member is tasked with bringing their expertise. Together, we have come to the following conclusion: supporting women victims of sexual violence requires a comprehensive approach. We cannot provide psycho-social support without including medical care or legal assistance. Similarly, it is necessary to work on the reintegration and acceptance of victims within their families. All ages are affected: since 2003, the women we have supported range from 10 months to 80 years old.

That is why we chose to work synergistically by pooling the experience and expertise of 35 Congolese women’s organizations. Firstly, we offer women medical care: when they arrive, they often suffer from severe injuries that need to be treated. Then, psycho-social support: they have been devastated and need specialists to help them recover from their trauma. Finally, socio-economic reintegration: a woman who has been raped can lose the support of her family and face real rejection. This can involve family mediation, for example. We also ask young women what they were doing before their traumatic experience and tailor the response accordingly: resuming education, returning to work, and so on.


  • In twenty years, have you noticed any changes in the legal handling of sexual violence?

In 2003 and 2004, accessing justice was difficult. However, with the advocacy and work we have provided, today, courts have multiplied everywhere, and thanks to international organizations supporting legal fees, women are able to access justice. Even the slowness of the system has seen some improvements: before, women wouldn’t file complaints because they knew they would be blamed and would never win. Additionally, money could easily corrupt judges. There has been a slight improvement since then. Today, the results are not fully achieved, and corruption remains a persistent problem, but justice has already managed to convict high-ranking army officers who committed rape.

However, there are still indulgences within the courts: the law provides for a sentence of five to twenty years for the crime of rape. Some judges punish rapists with only three years of imprisonment. If they pay, provisional release may be granted. This remains our fight today.


  • What message would you like to convey to international actors [non-governmental organizations, governments…]?

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been at war for thirty years. My children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have never known peace. We long for peace. The international community may perceive the war in the DRC as distant. However, their phones, computers, and electric cars are manufactured from minerals sourced from my country. Yet, within the same country, women are raped during the war. Therefore, the international community is also concerned about the DRC.

After Sudan, we are the second country with the highest number of displaced populations. There are approximately one million displaced people, and the humanitarian aid we receive remains very limited. Every day, we bury corpses due to famine. This phenomenon compels individuals to leave their home countries. Everyone must get involved so that we can attain peace.

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