Last week, John Holmes, UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, spent four days in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as part of the UN’s efforts to assess the humanitarian situation in the region.
Quoted in a Washington Post article published on 9 September 2007, he described the prevalence and intensity of sexual violence against women in eastern Congo as “almost unimaginable” and “worse than anywhere else in the world”. “Rape has become almost a cultural phenomenon”, Holmes noted.
In DRC, sexual violence is a component of a broader environment of insecurity. The presence in the forests of eastern Congo of Hutu militias (which fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide), along with other armed groups, has menaced the Congolese civilian population for more than 10 years. As Holmes described it:
“There needs to be a political solution to the problems there, which are connected to the past, to the genocide in Rwanda.”
Some figures? In DRC, according to the United Nations:
> About 300’000 people have been displaced in the last 10 months. Because basic resources, such as food and clean water, are missing in refugee camps, people die from hunger or disease;
> Nearly 4’500 cases of sexual violence have been reported in just one eastern province of DRC in the last 9 months. Real figures are probably much higher.
Systematic sexual violence against women and girls is a facet of warfare. It is used as a weapon of terror, aiming at terrorizing and dominating civilian populations, who often have to flee their homes in the hope of escaping sexual assaults, torture and mutilations. An article published in The Nation in 2004 noted that:
“Based on personal testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch, it is estimated that as many as 30% of rape victims are tortured and mutilated during the assaults, usually with spears, machetes, sticks or gun barrels thrust into their vaginas.  About 40% of rape victims, usually the younger ones , aged 8 to 19, are abducted and forced to become sex slaves.”
Beside the physical and psychological damage inflicted on women and children, it is reported that systematic rape is leading to a wide contamination of the population by HIV/AIDS.
Sexual violence in DRC is of a “systematic” nature. By recognizing that sexual violence is deliberately and strategically planned – like it was the case in Rwanda and in Bosnia-Herzegovina (in 2001, for the first time ever, rape was successfully prosecuted as a crime against humanity in a trial of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) –, a case could be made that it violates international humanitarian law.
Rape in DRC could then be prosecuted as crime against humanity or as a form of genocide.
Stephanie McCrummen, “Prevalence of Rape in E. Congo Described as Worst in World”, The Washington Post, 9 September 2007, available online here.
Jan Goodwin, “Silence=Rape”, The Nation, 8 March 2004, available online here.
Photo by cyclopsr retrieved from Flickr: "the surgery of 4-year-old Vitonsi was successful and she is now recovering. But she, as well as her mother, is deeply traumatized by the rape."