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Sexually Abused Congolese Women Subject of Fact-Finding Mission

The conflict in the eastern DRC has displaced over one million people, and women have borne the brunt of much of the violence. The aid organization OXFAM says, on average, more than one thousand women are raped every day. A fact-finding mission is underway in the DRC to find better ways of protecting women from violence and getting them more involved in the peace process.

Much of the violence in recent months has been blamed on various rebel groups. These include the Hutu-based FDLR, which took part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide before fleeing to what was then Zaire; the Tutsi-based CNDP; and the LRA, or Lord's Resistance Army, a Ugandan-based group operating for over 20 years.

OXFAM International president Mary Robinson and Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, general-secretary of the World YWCA, have visited camps for the displaced.

Robinson, the former president of Ireland and former UN high commissioner for human rights, says she met with Congolese president Joseph Kabila in Goma.

"I was able to raise with him concerns about security, concerns about displacement of civilians, and in particular the violence. And he said he has been especially addressing that issue with his cabinet. That he's insisting on zero violence against women. That he's been talking to his army chief. So, I think there is a change of mood in the context of what has been happening," she says.

What has been happening in the eastern DRC is that rape has been used as a weapon of war. Armed groups have raided towns and villages, raping women in front of their families as a means of laying claim to the territory.

Some of these women told their stories to Robinson at the Mugunga One camp, one of the oldest camps for internally displaced people in the eastern DRC.

"It was really very sad to hear because they were willing to speak about how they had been raped. In some cases, men had entered their home and raped them and then their husbands would no longer accept them. In some cases it was when they went for firewood. In some cases they became pregnant and they had babies that were born of rape," says Robinson.

Many of the rapes in the eastern DRC have been so violent that even surgery could nor repair the damage. Robinson says many women in the Mugunga One camp say they lack adequate food and shelter for their families. Some feel pressured to return home but are afraid they'll be attacked if they do.

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, general-secretary of the YWCA, says women want to prove they are more than just victims.

"The women are yearning for peace, but also for justice and also a return to normalcy. But, equally, the vibrancy of commitment to say we want to be part of the solution. We are not just the victims. We have ideas. We understand what needs to be done. And what needs to be done is for our communities to be secure and for us to go back home," she says.

She says she was also struck by the hundreds of former child soldiers at one camp, ranging in age of eight to seventeen. Gumbonzvanda says that support and skills-building programs have been established for survivors of violence.

"What is striking is that we need a collective response on this continent to say no to war and yes to peace. We need to sustain a massive effort to have peace and also to have justice in Africa and elsewhere," she says.

Gumbonzvanda and Mary Robinson meet with Rwandan president Paul Kagame over the weekend.

Upon leaving Africa, the YWCA and OXFAM leaders will meet with officials in Paris, London and Brussels, seeking support for their programs in Africa.