Sexual violence in eastern DR Congo - signs of change?

  • 29 November 2011
  • From the section Africa
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Patients sit on November 12, 2009 at Panzi hospital in Bukavu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
DR Congo has been called the rape capital of the world

During a fairly frenetic trip to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo last week I spent a couple of hours at the Heal Africa centre in Goma, one of several institutions in the region where victims of sexual violence are treated.

The compound was crowded. There was a lot of building work going on and the existing wards looked full.

I didn't manage to gather enough information to write a coherent report about the broader situation regarding rape in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo - it's been a devastating problem for many years - but I wanted to share one observation from a doctor at Heal Africa, in the hope that some of you can add to it or put it in better context.

First some bad news. Doctor Bienvenue Kayumba Kayanga, who is in charge of the treatment of rape victims, said that the number of women arriving at the clinic has not shown any signs of changing in recent months.

"The violence continues," he said.

"Over the past week we've seen girls as young as five and two years old," he added.

But something significant does appear to have changed in the nature of the attacks.

"Out of the 46 cases we've seen here so far this month, only two say they were raped by soldiers," said Dr Kayanga, confirming that this had become the norm.

He said almost all the women and children now visiting the clinic had been attacked by relatives or neighbours.

It seems, on the face of it, to be a significant shift from past years, when civilians in the region were ruthlessly targeted by a variety of armed groups.

Brutalised society?

Incidents of mass rape by soldiers do continue to be reported.

Mr Bienvenue had no easy explanation for the development, but he did not believe it was limited to his clinic. We discussed various possibilities.

- Could the presence of mobile courts, which have prosecuted a number of soldiers for rape, be acting as a deterrent?

- Is the security situation in general showing some signs of improvement?

- Was domestic violence as extensive before, but women did not tend to come forward?

- How far has society been brutalised by the conflict, and the sexual violence that accompanied so much of it?

- Is the perceived change seen at Heal Africa a statistical "blip," or distortion of the reality in the countryside?

After meeting the doctor, I spoke with a 15-year-old girl who had just arrived that morning from the countryside.

She said she had just been raped and beaten by two men in a field.

She didn't know if they were soldiers or not - they wore civilian clothes, but that doesn't mean much.

She spoke fast and at length - encouraged by a counsellor who said it was good for her to speak about her ordeal.

The girl said she did not expect any justice, and added that when she returned home after the rape and told her family what had happened, she was badly beaten and thrown out of the house by her relatives.