(WOMENSENEWS)–It has been Africa’s widest war, with half a dozen national armies and several rebel groups fighting over the wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. All of them have been violating the rights and the bodies of women, say two Congolese human rights researchers in the first comprehensive report on this issue to emerge from the scene.

If recent steps toward ending the war have produced some optimism internationally, there is no cause for joy in this report. Its findings show that the abuse of women, sharpened by more than four years of war, is so endemic in society that peace may bring even more suffering to those who have been raped, enslaved or forced into prostitution. Many others were tortured, massacred or died of hunger and disease.

The report, "Women’s Rights Violations During the Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo," was written by Lisette Banza Mbombo and Christian Hemedi Bayolo of the Association for the Rebirth of Human Rights in Congo, based in Kinshasa, the capital. It might have gone unnoticed outside the country had it not come to the attention of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development in Montreal, an independent body created by the Canadian Parliament.

"For us, it was very important to get this information out," said Isabelle Helal, the assistant coordinator for the women’s rights program at the center, which translated the report from French and posted it on the center’s Web site.

The study covers the period from August 1998 until Sept. 30, 2001, and draws on reports from local and international organizations working across the mostly inaccessible country. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire, is the size of western Europe and home to 53 million people.

A Growing Body of Reports on War’s Impact on Women

The Congo report is the latest addition to a growing body of documentation on the pervasive targeting of women in civil conflict around the world. Women have been tortured, genitally maimed, raped and killed–at times disemboweled to kill a fetus along with its mother–in the 1990s Balkans wars, during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda (to which the war in Congo is directly linked) and most recently in anti-Muslim pogroms by militant Hindus in the Indian state of Gujarat.

The trend has prompted campaigns at the United Nations and in independent organizations around the world demanding that the abuse of women during war and in refugee camps be addressed, and that women also be given prominent places at peace tables. At the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Swanee Hunt, a former American ambassador, has been a leader in this movement through her Women Waging Peace program.

Frustration and anger keeps rising, however. In 2000, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution requiring that women’s issues be addressed in peacekeeping and security operations around the world. When the directive came up for review this summer, Noeleen Heyzer, the Singaporean who is executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, told the Council that women were still at best only a token presence in international peace and security missions. And although international criminal tribunals have made rape a war crime–and the disgraceful excuse that "boys will be boys" has been rejected emphatically by international organizations–those who commit sex crimes are almost never punished and women never win redress, Heyzer said.

The Congo report describes graphically the horrific abuses of a war fought out of sight, where the number of international peacekeepers is impossibly small. Mass rapes, often to demoralize enemies, seem to take place everywhere, the authors found. In the eastern region of South Kivu, the report said, a Congolese rebel army allied to Rwanda had buried women alive after ramming sticks into their vaginas, to terrorize the local population.

International organizations estimate that 2 million people may have died in the Congo war; this report speculates that women account for many of the victims.

Danger Doesn’t End During Peacetime

In Congo, as in many traditional societies, the stigma of rape, a resulting pregnancy and the poverty of widowhood, can be a crushing burden. Even if peace comes, women will continue to be in peril, the authors conclude.

"In addition to mental and physical injury and the risk of pregnancy, rape victims are particularly vulnerable to contracting HIV because body tissues are more likely to be torn," the report says, quoting a joint survey by Oxfam, Save the Children and Christian Aid. "There are six foreign armies fighting on Congolese soil and, on average, soldiers’ rates of infection can be up to four times higher than those of civilians."

Women are abused in jails and dragooned into sexual slavery. When they form self-help groups they are harassed by both government and anti-government authorities. Nuns have been among the victims of intimidation.

The authors of the report had little hope when they concluded their study last fall that the peace process would go very far in ending violence or addressing the abuse of women. Nothing that has happened since changes that perception, human rights groups say. This week Human Rights Watch published a report on a massacre in the eastern city of Kisangani in May that took the lives of many civilians. Women, again, were sexually abused, tortured and killed, this time to punish men accused of mutiny.

Barbara Crossette is a former New York Times correspondent in India and the author of three books on Asia.



For more information:

Human Rights Watch
War Crimes in Kisangani:
"The Response of Rwandan-backed Rebels to the May 2002 Mutiny":

International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development
"Women’s Rights Violations During the Conflict
in the Democratic Republic of the Congo":

Also see Women’s Enews, May 27, 2002:
"Report Says Women Targeted during India’s Violence":