By Nicole Itano
Sunday, March 13, 2005
In the jungles and border towns of eastern Congo, a civil war staggers on, largely ignored. So far tens of thousands of women and girls have been sexually assaulted during this humanitarian crisis, according to Human Rights Watch.
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA (WOMENSENEWS)--A woman is gang-raped by six soldiers, in front of her husband and children, while their companion assaults her 3-year-old daughter. A 13-year-old girl dies, vomiting blood, two days after being brutally raped by a group of militants. A United Nation's peacekeeper trades a desperate woman two eggs for sex.
The stories are horrifying and endless and come from a new report by Human Rights Watch, evidence of the ongoing tragedy in a forgotten corner of Africa.
In the jungles and border towns of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the world's greatest humanitarian crises staggers on largely ignored by the international community. Millions have died or been displaced. And tens of thousands of women and girls have been victims of sexual assault.
"Something we are increasingly seeing in conflict zones, in wars, is that rape is being used as a weapon of war," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher on the Democratic Republic of Congo for Human Rights Watch.
"This isn't just soldiers on occasion wanting a bit of sex. This is becoming part of conduct of war. In that sense Congo is not unique. What's particularly frightening, of course, is the scale of what's happening in the Congo."
A report released March 7 by Human Rights Watch report says combatants on all sides of the Congo's complicated conflict are guilty of widespread sexual violence and that little has been done to slow the violence or prosecute those responsible.
Rape has been used to intimidate communities into submission, to punish them for supporting other groups and, in parts of Eastern Congo where the conflict is driven by ethnic hatred, to terrorize members of other ethnic groups. In a few reported cases, men and boys were also raped.
One humanitarian-aid worker is quoted in the report as saying the women of her region, the tumultuous Ituri area in Eastern Congo, could "write a whole library about the use of rape."
Worse, those sent to protect the people of Congo by the international community have not only failed to protect the country's women, but have contributed to their exploitation.
In recent months, the United Nation's peacekeeping force there, known as MONUC, has been grappling with allegations that its troops have been involved in widespread sexual misconduct, including rape and child prostitution.
"The places which have been subjected to the worst sexual violence is where we're having some of the worst allegations of sexual misconduct by peacekeepers," Jane Rasmussen, a U.N. official responsible for implementing new sexual-conduct programs in the Congo, told Women's eNews last year during her investigations into allegations.
"The fact is that women are so degraded already that it almost starts to become normal to them. One girl commented to me ruefully that at least MONUC pays."
In January, the United Nations released the results of their own investigation into the allegations and concluded that while many of the specific cases could not be collaborated there was "a pattern of sexual exploitation by peacekeepers contrary to the standards set by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations."
The civil war officially ended in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a vast nation about the size of Western Europe, almost two years ago. The country is also home to the world's largest United Nation's peacekeeping force.
But despite the presence of peacekeepers and the installation of a power-sharing government in the capital city Kinshasa in mid-2003, a low-scale but deadly conflict involving a number of small militias and armies continues, especially in the eastern region of Ituri near the border with Uganda.
In December last year, the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based human rights organization, released a mortality study saying that 31,000 people were still dying in the Congo each month, many of them children killed by war-related disease or malnutrition. In all, the organization estimated that almost 4 million people had died since the beginning of the conflict in August 1998.
The sexual violence continues as well. In the northeastern city of Bunia in Ituri, the site of much recent conflict, the French aid group Doctors Without Borders says 40 women and girls come to their medical center each week seeking help. The Human Rights Watch report too details an endless litany of violence against women.
One woman told them how she was gang-raped by six soldiers, in front of her husband and children, while their companion assaulted her 3-year-old daughter. Another described how her 13-year-old niece died, vomiting blood, two days after being brutally raped by a group of militants.
The violence will only end, Human Rights Watch says, when perpetrators begin to believe there will be consequences for their actions. But as their report notes, the Congo's capacity for prosecuting those accused of sexual violence remains limited. Unless there is increased political will locally and greater international support for the local justice system few Congolese women have much hope of seeing justice done.
"A key lesson learned from this is that peacekeeping missions will only have a degree of success if they can tackle the culture of impunity and hold people accountable, and that's in case of rape and a host of other human-rights abuses," said Van Woudenberg.
Although human rights groups believe that tens of thousands of women have been sexually assaulted during the last six years of conflict, only a handful of cases have been prosecuted by local courts or military officials.
Even peacekeepers accused of sexual misconduct are rarely held accountable, the U.N. admits. Under international law, peacekeepers remain under the legal authority of their home countries, most of whom have little political will to punish soldiers for such crimes, says Rasmussen.
In Bunia, a European Commission-supported court has successfully prosecuted 10 people for sexual violence and has cases pending against nine others. While the number prosecuted for sexual assault remains small and only a few were militants, Human Rights Watch cites the case as an example of how international support can strengthen the Congo's justice system, but also of how little is being done. So far, the Bunia court is the only like it in the country.
Most important, the organization says, is to begin holding high-rank commanders accountable for their actions. International courts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia have found that rape can amount to torture and that commanders guilty of encouraging rape are guilty of war crimes.
Stopping the violence and prosecuting those guilty of human rights violations in Congo will require a major scale-up of involvement by the international community, which many rights groups believe is still being neglected by donors and international news organizations.
In 2004, according to the International Rescue Committee, the world spent just $188 million on humanitarian aid there, an amount that equals just $3.23 a person, compared to $89 per person in the Sudan the same year and $138 per person in Iraq the previous year.
"There's lots of talk about how we're going to support the justice system, especially around sexual violence which everyone claims is such an important issue," said Van Woudenberg. "But there's not very much action behind the talk."
Nicole Itano is a freelance reporter based in Johannesburg. She has traveled several times to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
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Human Rights Watch--
"Seeking Justice: The Prosecution of Sexual Violence in the Congo War":
International Rescue Committee--
"Democratic Republic of Congo: 3.8 Million Dead in 6 Year Conflict":
MONUC--Investigation by the Office of Internal Oversight Services into allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
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