Recent data, published by medical journal The Lancet, reports that one in 14 women worldwide experience sexual violence in their lifetime. In certain regions incidents of sexual violence have reached endemic levels – most notably in conflict-torn countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to this most recent report, the Congo has an unprecedented sexual violence rate of 21%.
Women in Congo are most at risk of sexual violence in conflict-affected areas – particularly in eastern Congo. Armed men use rape as a strategic tactic of war to breed insecurity and fear in communities and to systematically humiliate women. They attack women during combat, community raids and in their homes. Ongoing conflict in the provinces of North and South Kivu has dramatically impacted the rates of sexual violence in the area. In the month of January 2013 the UNHCR registered 705 cases of sexual violence – a 652% increase from the same period in 2012. The majority of sexual violence cases remain unreported out of fear, shame and social stigma.
Sexual violence is becoming more prevalent outside of conflict zones. Data reported in the 2011 American Journal of Public Health estimates that approximately 1.8 million women across Congo have been raped in their lifetime, with up to 433 785 raped in a one year period, indicating 4 women every five minutes. Impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence prevails, fuelling increased rates of rape across the country.
Over the last decade, women’s groups have begun employing innovative strategies to combat the high rates of sexual violence and impunity in their communities. In 2012 Congolese women’s groups successfully worked together to secure the military court’s groundbreaking ruling against Colonel Kibibi Mutware. The court sentenced Mutware, three officers and five soldiers to 20 years in prison for the mass rape of 60 women in the community of Fizi in 2011. Mutware is the first commanding officer to be convicted for rape in eastern Congo. Currently, former Congo war-lord Bosco Ntaganda is on trial at the International Criminal Court for charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity – including using sexual violence as a weapon of war.
Women’s groups continue to conduct creative outreach and advocacy campaigns to advance peace and justice in their communities.