By Jared Kleinman
Impunity Watch Reporter, Africa
KINSHASA, DRC – Congolese laws against sexual violence are not being implemented and a withdrawal of United Nations peacekeepers from the country would make the struggle against rape “a lot more difficult,” the U.N. said.
Margot Wallstrom, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, is visiting Congo, where thousands of women are raped every year, as the U.N. tries to persuade the government not to demand a hasty withdrawal of the U.N. force. Democratic Republic of Congo has advanced legislation in place to outlaw sexual violence but Wallstrom said the country’s capacity to implement it was “near zero.”
Acts of civilian sexual violence have become increasingly pervasive in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to a recent study released on April 15 by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and Oxfam America, an international relief and development organization.
The study’s analysis of violence trends over time revealed that although the total number of sexual assaults reported steadily decreased between 2004 and 2008, the number of civilian rapes increased seventeen-fold.
Aid agencies and rights groups accustomed to the violence and suffering during and since Congo’s 1998-2003 war, which left millions dead, have been shocked by reports of the scale and brutality of the rapes by rebel and government forces alike.
“These findings imply a normalization of rape among the civilian population, suggesting the erosion of all constructive social mechanism that ought to protect civilians from sexual violence,” according to the study. The study also demonstrates how sexual violence can be used as a tool to ignite terror.
Accurate figures for sexual violence are hard to come by as many rapes are unreported but the U.N. said at least 5,400 women had reported being raped in neighboring South Kivu in the first nine months of 2009 alone.
“Some of the results were shocking, mostly that the women are really attacked everywhere and that everyone is at risk” said Susan A. Bartels, a researcher at Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, emergency room physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and primary author of the report. “I was shocked by the number of women who were attacked in their own home, specifically at night when they were sleeping with their families.”
Government forces as well as a plethora of rebel forces are accused of the abuse. Last year, the U.N. Security Council gave the government a list of officers known to have raped women and girls.
With celebrations of the 50th anniversary of independence this year and elections next, Congo would like for the peacekeeping mission, known as MONUC, to start withdrawing within months and wants the last blue helmet out in 2011.
Wallstrom claims however that the peacekeepers, who are often criticized for not doing enough, were making a difference. “Women used to be scared to go to the market … Now a lot of people go, and peacekeepers go with them. It has brought economic development to the region,” she said, referring to North Kivu province. The withdrawal of peacekeepers in this region, no matter how controversial, may lead to dangerous results.
For more information, please see:
The Harvard Crimson – Sexual Violence on the Rise in Congo – 19 April 2010
Reuters – U.N. Fears Congo Pullout Will Hurt Fight Against Rape – 19 April 2010
Eurasia Review – New Report Shows Shocking Pattern Of Rape In Eastern Congo – Sunday, April 18, 2010