Webcast Recap

"Getting reasonable, accurate, and finely grained data is fairly difficult …it requires multiple methods of investigation to understand the complexities and the dynamics of gender-based violence (GBV) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)," explained Michael VanRooyen, Co-Director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), at a January 15, 2009, conference co-sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Global Health Initiative and Africa Program. VanRooyen and his HHI colleague Jocelyn Kelly, Gender-Based Violence Research Coordinator, addressed the need to execute mixed-methods research to help improve policies that protect victims of GBV and punish assailants. Mary Ellsberg, Vice President of Health and Development, International Center for Research on Women, furthered this discussion by highlighting the need for ethical research and victim empowerment.

Mixed-Methods Research: The Dynamics of Militia and Community Response

HHI's research goals were to focus on gaps in understanding the dynamics of sexual violence. They used mixed-methods studies both qualitative and quantitative data in order to obtain the most sufficient amount of data. Kelly and VanRooyen evaluated militia behaviors, successful community-based resilience patterns, and attitudes towards UN and NGO interventions in various target communities. HHI found that in 2006, approximately 73.5% of sexual acts of violence were committed by gang rapes. Interviews with militia members demonstrated that the groups were well organized with strong chain of command, and that most of their information about sexual violence was obtained from radio announcements. According to interviewees, rape is forbidden by the militia's belief system; however, widespread reports by women suggest this has been insufficient for stopping the violent act. Not only are militia men committing sexually violent acts of crime, but HHI found that many rapes also occur in homes with families. This is more difficult to track since these crimes committed tend to be by a male member of the family. Approximately 56% of sexual attacks occurred at home.

Community members shared that rape has not decreased with cessation of war, and indeed has remained at war-time levels. No one is immune from this activity: victims of rape range from 3.5 to 80 years of age, and include men, women, and children. HHI's research concluded that most acts of rape occurred in the victims' home and many victims subsequently faced stigmatization and rejection by their communities. On average, most victims waited over one-year to seek healthcare services and many women interviewed expressed their desire to receive income-generating training over medical treatment, underscoring the dire socioeconomic consequences of GBV. Impunity for perpetrators exacerbates GBV and the practice of rape has become commonplace. Adopting the trend of rape, men in civilian communities are increasingly committing sexual acts of violence, and increased security and punitive response are vital to preventing GBV.

HHI concludes that future policymakers, both local and international, must work to increase protection strategies and timely medical treatment; develop income-training and sensitization project; and boost efforts to support judicial systems that track prosecutions and support the penal system. Members of the United Nations Security Council need to be engaged in evidence discussions and support for Security Council Resolution 1820 is imperative to transferring data into action.

Empowering Congolese Women through Research

"We need information research about what works and what doesn't in terms of our policies and our programs" shared Ellsberg, noting that all forms of violence against women in conflict-settings demands additional research. However, in order to fully address GBV, Ellsberg argued for additional research that examines gender norms and the increasing trend of civilian perpetrators and "production" of violent boys in conflict-settings. Conducting research on such sensitive topics–especially where authorities are among the perpetrators of violence–is indeed risky research for not only the investigator, but also the victims of violence.

While documenting sexual violence through mixed-methods research can empower communities, researchers must take extreme ethical care to protect participants from additional violence. "We are not going to collect information just because it would be nice to have the numbers and the security council would like the numbers… we can't put women at risk for that", argued Ellsberg. Implementing research standards to minimize additional victimization is necessary and the indicators listed in the
"Violence against Women and Girls: A Compendium of Monitoring and Evaluation Indicators" provides excellent instruction for investigators including research indicators and protocols.

Too often women in conflict-settings are pigeonholed as victims and are overlooked by researchers and policymakers. Women in conflict-settings must be empowered and included in the forefront of interventions and discussions of peacemaking. "Women are not just the victims, they are the decision-makers," and their experiences can provide significant leadership towards ending sexual violence, she argued.

Ongoing sexual violence in post-conflict settings, in particular the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, requires additional research and alternative methods of evaluation. The Global Health Initiative and Harvard Humanitarian Initiative will continue to collaborate on this global health concern and work to understand the dynamics of sexual violence in order to improve policy recommendations and program coordination in current and post-conflict areas.

Drafted by Adina Fischer and Calyn Patzer and edited by Gib Clarke.


  • Michael VanRooyen

    Co-Director, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative
  • Jocelyn Kelly

    Gender-Based Violence Research Coordinator, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative
  • Mary Ellsberg

    Vice President of Health and Development, International Center for Research on Women