Democratic Republic of the Congo: conflict becomes more brutal with rise in sexual violence
Since fighting intensified in eastern Congo in August 2008 between government troops and armed opposition groups, the number of cases of rape and other sexual abuse against civilians is has been increasing.
According to a recent independent survey* commissioned by the ICRC, 28% of the people interviewed in the DRC know someone who has fallen victim to sexual violence.
76% of the population has been affected in some way by the armed conflict, .
58% of those with personal experience of the conflict,
58% have been displaced from their homes at some point,
47% have lost contact with a close relative.
In North and South Kivu there continue to be reports of numerous crimes against civilians, including rape, murder, and the looting and destruction of homes, continue to be reported.
It is estimated that in North Kivu alone, since the beginning of the year, over 300,000 people have been displaced due to armed violence since the beginning of the year.
Most rape victims are women, but the number of men and boys affected victims is on the increase.
According to counsellors in the area, men are often brutally raped when the perpetrators can not find any women to sexually abuse.
These men are frequently so traumatised traumatized that they no longer have the strength to work.
The proliferation of small arms and light weapons often results in an increased risk of sexual violence.
But women and men are also being raped even in areas where there is no longer is any fighting.
The sheer presence of men with guns represents a danger for tens of thousands of people who live in fear of physical and sexual violence and other forms of physical violence.
Sexual violence is rooted in a variety of factors, amongst them: a weak chain of command leaving fighters without clear instructions to follow; a widespread culture of impunity, meaning that most perpetrators of rape are never held to account, and this despite the fact that both Congolese law and international humanitarian law clearly prohibit all forms of sexual violence; as the fact that fighters do not receive regular salaries or food supplies – they often steal from the population, and rape the villagers, as a form of payment; a tendency to terrorize civilians and exert control over them, or to punish them for perceived collaboration with the “enemy”.
Though international humanitarian law and the Congolese Constitution clearly prohibit all forms of sexual violence, this culture of impunity prevents justice to be done.
Since 2005 the ICRC has been supporting “maisons d’écoute”, (counselling centres – which literally, translate as “houses for listening”), where victims of sexual violence receive counselling.
Today it provides support for 37 listening houses such centres, which are run by local associations in North and South Kivu.
Psycho-Social workers listen to the victims, counsel them, direct them to health centres and, if needed, mediate between them and their families.
The health centres provide victims with a kit that contains, among others other things, medication against sexually transmitted infections.
In order not to expose women to the risk of rape when gathering firewood in remote areas, the counselling centres / listening houses also show them how to make bricks from wood pulp that can be used as fuel for low low-energy cooking stoves.
In addition to the physical and psychological pain they suffer, rape victims are often rejected by their families and neighbours, and become vulnerable to further abuse.
The stigma is compounded by the climate of insecurity and the collapse of public services, that curtails victims’ ability to obtain access to much-needed medical and psychological care.
In addition to the exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, victims suffer from psychological trauma and injury which may take much more time to heal than purely physical ones.
Psycho-Social workers also run community community-awareness campaigns to combat rejection and stigma and contribute to creating an environment where the needs of victims of sexual violence are acknowledged.
Says counsellor Micheline Mupenzi: “There is much suffering around, and psychological wounds are not given sufficient enough attention.
You can treat victims of sexual violence from a strictly medical point of view, but they can die if their “‘inner wounds”‘ are not taken into account.
Some women would go back home and stop eating, –they do nothing but crying, and eventually die from mental and physical exhaustion.”
* Consult this survey on our website http://www.icrc.org/Web/eng/siteeng0.nsf/htmlall/views-from-field-report-240609/$File/Our-World-Views-from-DRC-I-ICRC.pdf
TV news footage transmitted worldwide 24th July 2009 on Associated Press Global Newswire at 09:15 – 09:30 GMT Repeated 14:15 – 14:30 GMT and on Eurovision News Service (to be confirmed)