Sex attacks on the rise in war-ravaged DR Congo

GOMA, DR Congo (AFP) — It took ten-year-old Constance several days to reach the hospital in Goma. She had just fled her home in the east Democratic Republic of Congo after rebel fighters stormed her village, killing her parents and then brutally raping her.

Constance is now being cared for in the Heal Africa hospital in the provincial capital of Nord-Kivu, which houses a specialist unit for victims of sexual assault.

On her journey to Goma, she said she was attacked again by "two unknown men" and dumped on the roadside. A passer-by found her in a pool of her own blood.

Since fresh fighting broke out in August between government troops and rebels, sexual assaults on women in Congo have risen to levels not seen for many years, according to The International Rescue Committee (IRC), a New-York based humanitarian group.

As Laurent Nkunda's National Council for the Defence of the People continue to fight, much of the Nord-Kivu region remains lawless, plagued by widespread looting and violence.

"Women and girls are once again threatened by sexual violence that has hit new heights in Nord-Kivu in a context of instability and the huge displacement of civilians," the IRC said.

Convicted rapists can receive up to 20 years in jail under Congolese law, but as the IRC's Sarah Spencer points out the country's judicial and legal institutions are severely weakened.

Medecins sans Frontieres, an international medical aid group, estimates that between January and October this year it treated as many as 5,700 rape victims in the Nord-Kivu region.

Spencer, who oversees victim programmes for rape survivors, said the biggest increase in attacks has been on teenaged and young girls, many of whom only cross the front line in search of firewood or food.

"Rape is being used as a weapon of war," Spencer said.

But the actual figures may even be higher than the IRC's estimates. Charlotte Riziki, an advisor to the Heal Africa hospital said many women are too scared to come forward and report a sexual attack.

"In the majority of rape cases, the husband will blame his wife, families will stigmatise the daughter, the child rape victim is not accepted," she said.

Riziki said the Congo government needed to do more to stop "this scourge that is destroying our society."

So far they have done nothing to help 28-year-old Jeanne, a mother of three sons. Jeanne alleges she was raped by men of a Rwandan Hutu armed group opposed to Nkunda's rebels.

"They were many of them. I was raped at least three times between them. I even heard some of them saying 'Isn't it better that we just kill her?'" she said, adding that an eight-year-old girl had died while being raped.

Jeanne survived for months without any help before the aid agencies arrived, but she is now a patient at the Heal Africa hospital, where she is being treated for fever, fatigue and genital pain. She shares a ward with other rape victims or women who have suffered pregnancy complications.

"I don't know what's going to happen to me or how I am going to be able to bring up my children," she said, curled up on her bed as her six-year-old boy lovingly gazed at her.


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