People listen to Jan Egeland, then-U.N. undersecretary-general of humanitarian affairs, at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Congo, in 2006. A U.N. official in 2010 called Congo “the rape capital of the world.” (Reuters)

Over the past decade, sexual violence during conflict has gotten a lot of attention from researchers, advocates and journalists. Until now, researchers have largely concentrated on either examining why fighters commit sexual violence during war or how conflict-driven sexual violence affects its victims. Here’s what we’ve missed until now: How do rebels think about sexual violence?

That’s what we asked former rebels in Congo, where the complex and long-standing conflicts have become infamous for the intensity of sexual violence. In 2010, one U.N. representative called Congo the “rape capital of the world.” News media have commented on its “rape epidemic.”

Here’s how we did our research

A few studies have looked at the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) involved in sexual violence, but little is known about rebels or foreign combatants. Therefore, we interviewed over 100 former rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The FDLR was established around the year 2000, emerging from the exiled Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) and militia responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The FDLR and its splinter groups have repeatedly committed sexual violence, including attacks on civilians and mass rape.

Of course, it’s difficult to get reliable information about sexual violence from actors who barely admit or even completely deny that they perpetrated it. But we wanted to know what we could learn by discussing gender, sex and violence with individuals who will at a minimum acknowledge that they have observed such sexual violence, whether they will admit committing it. Even denial, silence, justification and accusation can illuminate these possible perpetrators’ points of view.

Here’s how these ex-rebels explain sexual violence

1. Rape is considered biologically natural, especially during conflict — but there are limits

First, the former rebels describe male sexual biology as having overwhelming power, speaking of “urges,” “basic needs” and “domination.” These biological “urges” and “needs” mean that rebels and soldiers at times take a woman against her will, especially in the abnormal context of a violent conflict. “In times of war, there are no laws, it’s the law of the strongest that reigns,” a former rebel told us.

A woman’s body is thus discussed as a territory to be used, much like the territory that the rebels are trying to conquer. One 26-year-old corporal said:

It is said that the Congo is like a big restaurant, one can find to eat and to drink easily, and it is also the case for women. As one cannot spend a day without finding to eat in the Congo, similarly one cannot go a day without finding a woman with which one can have sexual intercourse.

In short, what other authors have called “lust rapes” are treated as normal. They are seen as a natural consequence in time of conflict, especially because peacetime’s clear norms and rules have already been violated.

This concept of “natural” sexual assault, however, has its limits. Outside this norm are group rapes, genital mutilation and rapes of children, all of which are considered abnormal and violent. Rebels believe such actions indicate that the perpetrator is mentally disturbed, intoxicated or barbaric. One ex-FDLR officer told us:

All of that comes from craziness. I know about the case of a Rwandan woman who was raped by four FARDC and after that ignominy, the soldiers tried to use their bayonets to cut the genital parts. Those who do that are like savage beasts.

This particular understanding of gender relations and what makes sexuality violent is not the sole factor to make sexual violence thinkable.

2. Race, nationality and ethnicity are all used to justify or condemn various sexual assaults

The former FDLR rebels leaned on nationality as they categorized sexual assaults, either in justifying sexual violence or condemning other perpetrators.

They do this in several ways. First, they identify themselves as Rwandans, and say that the perpetrators of sexual violence are mostly Congolese. Our interviewees portrayed the Congolese men as lazy, uneducated and poor, without any respect for women and with no capacity to resist their biological “urges” and “needs.” That, in the former rebels’ descriptions, is what resulted in sexual violence.

Similarly, the former rebels described the Congolese women as both “promiscuous” and “cheap,” ready for sexual intercourse at any time and at any price — which somehow implies that the Rwandans’ sexual activities were not sexual assaults. One 32-year-old corporal said, “For the Congolese, having sex is like a game, everyone does it with everyone.”

In short, Congolese men and women are portrayed as uncivilized and barbaric. In contrast, they, the Rwandan men, consider themselves superior and informed about women’s rights, able to pay for sex or refrain from sexual violence.

We are reporting, not endorsing, these perceptions

These descriptions are not “objectively” true. They are ways of seeing the world, reported by people who have been close to large-scale sexual violence. These worldviews must be understood if sexual violence is to be stopped.

Researchers have documented how rumors, prejudices and almost mythical (or barely factual) accounts of people of other ethnic and national identities contribute to genocide, war and large-scale killings in Africa’s Great Lakes region. In this case, the violent history between Rwanda and the Congo has evidently played a part in constructing identities and explaining behaviors, much as the current context of violence and war shapes understandings of what sexual behavior and gender relations are perceived as “normal” or “exceptional.”

Organizations and policymakers attempting to stop sexual violence will be more successful if they focus on how rumors, prejudices and stereotypes about different groups of people, along with ideas about what’s “natural” in sexual and gender relations, can be transformed and dismantled.

Nina Wilén is a Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS) postdoctoral researcher at Université Libre de Bruxelles, and a guest researcher at Lund University. She is the author of “Justifying Interventions in Africa: (De)Stabilizing Sovereignty” (Palgrave, 2012)

Bert Ingelaere is lecturer at the University of Antwerp and author of “Inside Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts. Seeking Justice After Genocide” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016)