DRC: Focus on rampant rape, despite end of war
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
KINSHASA, 8 March (PLUSNEWS) - Widespread rape of women and children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has continued to increase despite the inauguration of a transitional national government and related institutions, organizations in the fight against sexual violence have said.
While there are no precise figures on this abuse, the Joint Initiative on the Fight Against Sexual Violence Towards Women and Children (Initiative conjointe de la lutte contre les violences sexuelles faites a la femme et a l'enfant) has tried to assemble some statistics. Created after the DRC's five-year war, the group includes representatives from the UN, NGOs and the Congolese government.
"There were 25,000 cases of sexual violence record in South Kivu [Province], 11,350 cases in Maniema [Province], 1,625 cases in Goma [capital of North Kivu Province], and some 3,250 cases in Kalemie [a town in southeastern DRC]" since war first erupted in August 1998, Flora Tshirwisa, a member of the Joint Initiative and director of the health and reproduction programme and the World Health Organization (WHO), told PlusNews.
She added that this phenomenon could also be found in areas that were not directly affected by the war, such as in the capital, Kinshasa, with 1,162 cases of rape of women and children recorded since August 1998.
However, she said that the figures were imprecise and that the study by the Joint Initiative was incomplete, as it did not cover the entire country.
"Even if it is now said that the war is over, people nevertheless still maintain a culture of war. We must work diligently to bring an end to this phenomenon," Tshirwisa said.
Of the entire country, however, the eastern region is where rape remains most widespread. The Joint Initiative has suggested two reasons for the recent explosion in numbers of cases reported.
The first is that many acts of rape are not necessarily linked to war, having taken place in localities far from combat zones.
According to the Joint Initiative, rape during conflict has multiple causes. For one, it enables rapists to prove their domination and to terrorise the targeted population that includes the young and old.
"The ages of females who have been raped ranges from four to 80," Tshirwisa said. "It often involves gang rapes committed during war in the presence of the rest of the community."
In addition to being used as an act of vengeance, rape is sometimes being used in rituals. "Certain men mistakenly believe that if an HIV-infected adult has sex with a child, they will be cured," Jose Mutima, a monitoring assistant with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), told PlusNews.
The second reason for the rise in reported cases is that increasing numbers of victims of sexual violence are now speaking out about their experiences. The Joint Initiative believes that awareness campaigns conducted by NGOs have helped to destigmatise mention of these crimes. The campaigns have also created an environment free of shame, where sexual violence can be denounced and where victims can be supported psychologically, medically and be reintegrated into society.
Mamie Mboroko, 17, is in her ninth month of pregnancy. The US-based NGO Doctors on Call for Service (DOCS) treated her in Goma after having been used as a sex slave for just over one month. An estimated 1,500 women who, like her, had been raped, have been treated in this centre.
Mamie does not know who is the father of her child, and fears for the child’s future. She was fortunate to escape from the Mbolo forest, near Uvira in South Kivu Province, where her abductors took her and other captured women and girls.
She said Burundian rebels of the Forces pour la Defense de la Democratie abducted her in early May 2003 during a raid on a neighbourhood of Bukavu, in South Kivu Province. During the attack, the rebels killed her father, her mother and her older brother.
"They took me to their hideout in the forest, where I was raped daily by three combatants who each took turns morning, afternoon and night. They did not use condoms.
"Furthermore, my captors beat me badly every day because I could not stop crying that I was being forced to have sex with these men who had killed my father, my mother and my brother.
"I was so sick that my captors fled so they would not have to see me die. I gathered my last ounce of strength in order to flee, nearly naked. In the forest, there was not a single thing available to treat any of my pains," she said.
Although deeply traumatised, she was at least somewhat relieved that she had not contracted HIV/AIDS. Others have not been so lucky.
"I have found an HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of 12 percent among women who have been raped," Kalume said.
According to the National Programme for the fight against AIDS (Programme national de lutte contre le sida), this is the same rate as certain large eastern Congolese cities such as Bukavu, Goma, Kindu and Kisangani.
In addition to HIV/AIDS, urogenital complications can also be added to an already gloomy picture.
"At least one hundred women who have been treated here have suffered from serious urogenital complications such as fistula," Dr Jacques Kalume, the medical director of DOCS, said. "These are very difficult cases to treat."
The majority of women cared for by DOCS have lost members of their families, killed by armed groups, or have been rejected by their husbands and loved ones.
"For the most part, women who have been victims of rape have been rejected by their communities, and many of their husbands no longer want anything to do with them," Josiane Mutombo, of the NGO Nouvelle dynamique pour la jeunesse feminine, said.
As a result, "some women are reluctant to denounce the crimes that have been committed against them in order to avoid being rejected by society," Milen Kidane, a child protection officer for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Goma, said.
Despite the support of humanitarian partners, the situation of these women remains precarious. Scorned by their own communities, they have been left with nothing. Now, with the help of humanitarian organizations, their primary battle is to gain reacceptance into society.
Since the end of the fighting, these women are still waiting to see those who committed these acts punished.
"Even if a Truth and Reconciliation Commission were to be created, those guilty of rape must be punished, because impunity only encourages the continuation of rape," Mutombo said.
The commission foreseen for the DRC is modelled after the one established in post-apartheid South Africa. It is one of five institutions created by the inter-Congolese dialogue for the support of democracy.
The commission is responsible for establishing the truth of events, reconciling former enemies and addressing the injustices committed during recent years of war in the country, which led to the deaths of an estimated 3.5 million people and rendered some three million others internally displaced.
"The majority of women who have been raped are deeply traumatised. These women continue to live in proximity to those who have committed crimes against them, men who are well known by the community, but whom nobody bothers, while these women, the victims, are rejected," UNHCHR's Mutima said.
DRC President Joseph Kabila and one of his four vice-presidents, Azarias Ruberwa, who is in charge of the country's political, defense and security commission, recently announced that those guilty of committing rape after wartime would pay for their crimes.
Ruberwa, leader of the Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie (RCD-Goma) former rebel movement, now party to the government of national unity, did not hesitate in qualifying these acts as crimes against humanity.
"Rape is a violation of law classified as a crime against humanity by the Rome Statute [creating the International Criminal Court]," Mutima said.
In an effort to help these women, the Joint Initiative has created a legal aid fund, which has already received the backing of donors including the World Bank. It is to be officially launched on Monday to coincide with International Women's Day.
"This legal aid fund for victims of sexual violence will, first of all, serve to launch inquiries into these crimes, and second, to support lawyers and judges in their prosecution," Mutima added.
The fund will also provide training for judges and supply courts with computers.
The Joint Initiative also plans to make money available for proper follow-up of cases of the women, most of whom are farmers, Mutima said.
"They no longer go to their fields, preferring to stay at home," Mutima said. "Rejected by their communities, they have no resources to pay the legal expenses required for their pursuit of justice."