The United Nations refugee agency says it is alarmed at the large numbers of women who continue to be victims of rape and sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The UNHCR says more than one third of recorded cases of rape, in the first three months of 2010, are in North and South Kivu provinces in eastern DRC, which hosts some 1.4 million internally displaced people.
During the first three months of this year, United Nations data shows 1,244 women were sexually assaulted throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo. That averages almost 14 assaults every day.
U.N. refugee spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming, says a similar number of sexual assaults were recorded in the same period last year. So, the situation is not getting better.
"We do fear that the real numbers, of course, could be much higher because we are aware that many of the survivors do keep silent on this-on their trauma," said Fleming. "We are really disturbed by the lack of justice and prevailing impunity. We consider sexual violence among the most serious of crimes and should be treated as such. Survivors should be helped to report incidents without fear of reprisals."
Fleming says women often are raped when they venture out of their villages or camps to collect firewood, water and other essential means to survive.
The UNHCR runs camps for 100,000 internally displaced people in Kivu province. Fleming says the UNHCR is doing its utmost to reduce the exposure of women in the camps. In North Kivu, for example, she says the agency provides fuel-efficient stoves and firewood so the women do not have to leave safe areas.
DRC President Joseph Kabila has told the United Nations that it wants its large force of peacekeepers to leave the country. The U.N. force has been in the country for 11 years and is widely credited with preventing some of the worst abuses.
Fleming says security for women in the Congo is absolutely vital. She says the UNHCR is seriously concerned that rape will increase if measures of security are reduced.
"We do have evidence and hear from IDP's [camps for internally displaced persons] that the presence of MONUC troops [peacekeeping troops] has given them a greater sense of security," said the spokeswoman. "And that in places where peacekeepers are, we do have indications that their presence on patrol brings down security incidents, it brings down the reported cases of rape."
Fleming says the UNHCR provides rape victims with counseling, medical treatment and legal advice. She says in a few cases, women have received legal redress.
But, she notes the overall number of cases in which criminal charges are brought is tiny compared to the vast scale of the problem. In DRC at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence have been recorded since 1996.