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DRC Sexual Violence Sharply Rises

Congolese government army soldiers prepare their weapons at an attack position near Munigi, overlooking the front-line, where they are fighting against M23 rebels outside the eastern Congolese city of Goma, Jul. 15, 2013.
The U.N. refugee agency says there’s been an alarming rise in sexual violence in the DRC’s North Kivu Province. Fighting between government forces and two rebel groups has displaced thousands of civilians, leaving them vulnerable to attack.

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North Kivu Province is practically synonymous with sexual violence. While the names of the armed groups may have changed over the many years of conflict, brutal sexual attacks on women, girls, men and boys have remained constant.

UNHCR’s Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba said the attacks have risen sharply in the first half of the year.

“When we look at the number of sexual violence cases reported to our staff for the first half of this year it’s 705 cases -- and this includes 619 rape cases -- compared to last year for the same period where we had 108 registered cases and this includes males. We are worried that the current fighting will increase the danger for the women in the region. A lot of the times the number of rape cases increases with the level of violence.”

These are just the cases recorded by UNHCR teams. Most of the sexual violence is committed by members of armed groups.

“These are militiamen. Some of them are from the Congolese army itself. What these civilians, who suffer from these sexual assaults, tell us is that different armed groups blame them for siding with the enemy. And sometimes it’s just a matter of perception of what they call siding with the enemy. And as a result they are punished by being raped,” she said.

It is in this way that rape has become a weapon of war.

Last year, the U.N. reported more than 7,000 cases of sexual violence in North Kivu Province, up from about near 4,700 cases in 2011. Lejeune-Kaba says it’s difficult to say, right now, whether this year’s figures will be even higher.

“We have other partners that are also collecting data on rape cases, so we think that there will be many, many more. How many more is hard to say for now because we don’t have data for the whole of 2013, so far,” she said.

The Congolese army is battling the M23 rebels near the provincial capital of Goma, and the ADF rebels around Kamango, which is near the Ugandan border. The Ugandan government says the ADF has ties to al Qaeda. M23 rebels are mostly Tutsi. A U.N. report leaked late last year said the rebels had the backing of both Rwanda and Uganda. Both countries deny it.

Since July 14th, up to 7,000 people have been displaced around Goma due to fighting and another 14,000 have been displaced this month in the Kamango area. In all, there are nearly one-million displaced people in the DRC’s North Kivu province from years of conflict.