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Congo Women Still Victims of Attack Despite Peace Deal, says Humanitarian Group - 2004-04-01

A leading humanitarian organization says Congolese soldiers and former rebel forces continue to attack women in many parts of the country, where order has not been restored. The group, Doctors Without Borders, says in a report issued in Nairobi the attacks continue in spite of a peace deal signed last year between the Kinshasa government and several rebel groups to end one of Africa's deadliest conflicts.

Doctors Without Borders says aid workers in Baraka, a city in northeastern Congo, have treated more than 600 victims of rape and sexual abuse since August of last year. Among the victims were a four-year-old girl and a 70-year-old woman.

And that's just in one province. Congo has 10.

"There has been a stop to fighting in many places but we're still seeing insecurity and we're still seeing massive humanitarian problems in terms of nutrition, displacement and the like. One example being sexual violence which is continuing now despite the end of the war," said Doctors Without Borders spokesman, Damian Lilly.

The attacks against Congolese women are continuing in spite the peace agreement, the presence of 11,000 United Nations peacekeeping troops and public condemnations by former rebel leaders and government officials.

Thousands of former rebels still roam the countryside in northern and eastern Congo, and some of them have continued to loot villages and rape women and girls.

During the five-year Congo civil war, rape was often used to terrorize villages. A report by the United Nations Security Council says possibly hundreds of thousands of women and girls were sexually assaulted during the war.

Congolese people and aid groups say more has to be done to combat the scourge of rape. But they complain that so far, little has been done.

There's been a commission set up which involves U.N. actors, NGOs, local NGOs, and they've been monitoring cases of whether there have been instances of rape brought before the court," explained Damian Lilly of Doctors Without Borders. "And as far as I've asked the UN, who has been coordinating this, there's only ever been one case that's actually been convicted in court. There are few cases being brought before the court, but it's a very difficult crime to punish."

The fear of abduction and rape has made many women - the backbone of the Congo's labor force - reluctant to seed and harvest their fields, which often are outside the villages.

As the fear persists, fewer farms are being cultivated. People are becoming malnourished and more vulnerable to disease.

Aid organizations are urging the national unity government led by President Joseph Kabila to increase efforts to prosecute both rebel and government soldiers accused of war crimes, including rape. The prosecutions could not only punish the criminals, but could also discourage others from participating in attacks on women in Congo in the future.