One rape every minute in Congo

Sydney Morning Herald

A STUDY by American scientists estimates that nearly 2 million women
have been raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with women
victimised at a rate of nearly one every minute.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, is one
of the first comprehensive looks at the prevalence of rape in Congo. It
says that the problem is much bigger and more pervasive than previously
thought. Women have reported alarming levels of sexual abuse in the
capital and in provinces far from Congo’s war-torn east, a sign that the
problem extends beyond the nation’s primary conflict zone.

”Not only is sexual violence more generalised,” the study said,
”but our findings suggest that future policies and programs should
focus on abuse within families.”

For the past 15 years, Congo has been racked by rebel groups that
terrorise civilians, particularly in the east, often to exploit the
country’s mineral riches. UN officials have called Congo the centre of
rape as a weapon of war, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
visited rape victims in eastern Congo in 2009 in an effort to draw more
attention to one of Africa’s most intractable and disturbing conflicts.

Many areas of Congo are inaccessible – cut off by thick forests and
warring groups – and many victims have been too frightened to speak out.

The conclusions in the new study, by three public health researchers –
Amber Peterman of the International Food Policy Research Institute, Tia
Palermo of Stony Brook University and Caryn Bredenkamp of the World
Bank – are based on extrapolations from a household survey done in 2007
of 3436 Congolese women nationwide. The researchers found that around 12
per cent were raped at least once in their lifetime and 3 per cent were
raped in the one-year period before the survey.

Around 22 per cent had been forced by their partners to have sex or
perform sexual acts against their will, the study showed. The women,
aged 15 to 49, were interviewed in a demographic and health survey
partly financed by the US government.

The study’s authors used current population estimates, which put
Congo’s population at around 70 million, to extrapolate that as many as
1.8 million women have been raped, with up to 433,785 raped in the
one-year period – almost a rape a minute.

Michael VanRooyen, director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative,
which has sent doctors to Congo to treat rape victims, said that there
were ”some limitations in the methodology, such as the sampling methods
and the sample sizes” of the study. But ”the important message
remains: that rape and sexual slavery have become amazingly commonplace
in this region of the DRC and have defined this conflict as a war
against women.”

The authors believe the rape problem may be worse than their study
suggests. The findings are based on survey results from females of
reproductive age, but many reports and witness accounts have shown that
armed men often gang-rape young girls – some even toddlers – and elderly
women in their 70s and older, in addition to a growing number of men
and boys. Also, many rape victims never report being assaulted because
of the shame and stigma.

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