New report shows shocking pattern of rape in eastern Congo

Published: 15th April 2010

Survey reveals that sixty percent of rape victims gang raped, more than half in their own homes, appalling increase in number of civilian rapists

An extensive study of rape victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) commissioned by Oxfam and conducted by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, shows that 60 percent of rape victims surveyed were gang raped by armed men and more than half of assaults took place in the supposed safety of the family home at night, often in the presence of the victim’s husband and children.
While the majority of rapists were either soldiers or militiamen, the report also shows a shocking 17-fold increase in rapes carried out by civilians between 2004 and 2008.
The report, "Now, the world is without me", is based on the study by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, which analyzed information collected from 4,311 female rape victims who were treated in Panzi hospital in South Kivu Province over a four-year period.

A wake-up call

The report found that the incidence of rape spiked during military activities. Given the ongoing offensives against militia groups in eastern Congo, the report has real relevance for the situation in DRC today. Over 5,000 people were raped in South Kivu in 2009, according to the UN. The report comes out ahead of the UN Security Council visit to DRC this weekend, with the council set to renew the UN peacekeepers mandate in May.
Krista Riddley, Oxfam's Director of Humanitarian Policy, said:
“Rape of this scale and brutality is scandalous. This is a wake-up call at a time when plans are being discussed for UN peacekeepers to leave the country. The situation is not secure if a woman can’t even sleep safely in her own bed at night. The report shows when and where women are attacked, and why peacekeepers must continue to play a vital role in creating security while the Congolese government builds up its own capacity to keep civilians from harm.”
The study shows that 56 percent of assaults were carried out in the family home by armed men, while 16 percent took place in fields and almost 15 percent in the forest. Fifty-seven percent of assaults were carried out at night. Sexual slavery was also reported, affecting 12 percent of the women in the sample, with some women being held captive for years.

Stigma delays treatment

The report also offers insights into the stigma facing women within their families after rape and the problems they face getting medical care. Less than one percent of women came to Panzi hospital with their husbands and nine percent had been abandoned by their spouse. One in three women came alone.
This stigma leads to delays in seeking treatment, with only 12 percent of the women coming to Panzi within a month of the assault. Very few women came for treatment in time to prevent HIV infection. Over 50 percent of women waited more than a year before seeking treatment, with a significant number waiting more than three years.
Krista Riddley from Oxfam said:
“Panzi is the only hospital of its kind in South Kivu, which is home to some 5 million people. Many women from rural areas cannot make the journey and often die from the complications associated with brutal rape. Rich country donors together with the Congolese government need to radically increase the medical services available for survivors of sexual violence in Congo’s remote towns and villages. Every woman should be able to get the treatment she needs.”
The research found that fewer than one percent of rapes were perpetrated by civilians in 2004. By 2008, that proportion had gone up to 38 percent.

Few rapists are prosecuted

Susan Bartels, the study’s lead researcher from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, said, “This study confirms what has only been reported anecdotally until now: sexual violence has become more normal in civilian life. The scale of rape over Congo’s years of war has made this crime seem more acceptable. Although Congo has one of the most progressive laws on rape in Africa, few rapists are prosecuted. The law must be enforced and justice put within reach of survivors.”
The report calls on the Congolese government and the international community to:

  • Increase provision of medical care for survivors of sexual violence, particularly in rural areas. The easier it is to get help locally, the more likely women will be to get timely support for HIV and the more able they will be to manage the risk of others finding out. Stigma remains a significant barrier to accessing care following sexual violence.
  • Ensure that the protection provided by the UN peacekeepers and Congolese security services is tailored to local realities. The peacekeepers and security services need to consult with the local community to provide innovative solutions, such as early warning systems and night patrols to help meet their needs. This is happening in some areas and needs to be rolled out more systematically to respond to the threats this report highlights.
  • Reform the Congolese security sector and justice system to ensure that there is zero tolerance for rape, whether it is committed by civilians, militiamen, or soldiers.

Read more

Download the report: Now, the world is without me
Watch the video by Oxfam America: Sexual Violence in DR Congo
View the photos by photographer Rankin: From Congo with Love
Oxfam's response to the conflict in the DRC

Although Congo has one of the most progressive laws on rape in Africa, few rapists are prosecuted. The law must be enforced and justice put within reach of survivors.
Susan Bartels
Harvard Humanitarian Initiative

Notes to editors

The research was conducted by Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and funded by Oxfam America.

  1. Just over half of perpetrators - 52 percent - were identified as being armed combatants. Another 42 percent identified only as “assailants,” but the researchers say the analysis of data suggests this group is also composed largely of armed men.
  2. This is a retrospective cohort study conducted at Panzi Hospital. Interviews were conducted on sexual violence survivors as they presented to the hospital between 2004 and 2008. The interviews were conducted in private by trained female officers using a two-paged, semi-structured questionnaire as the victims came in for treatment. Researchers from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative entered the data into an electronic spreadsheet and quantitative as well as qualitative analysis was performed. 4,311 of the 9,709 sexual violence survivors presenting to Panzi Hospital between 2004 and 2008 were interviewed.
  3. The report found that the total number of reported assaults at Panzi hospital had steadily decreased between 2004 to 2008, with military rape decreasing by 77 percent over the same period. However, figures have been affected by a number of particularly serious incidents in 2004, such as one single weekend in June when up to 16,000 women were reportedly raped by military forces in Bukavu.
  4. In 2009, cases of military rape have again surged as a result of the Kimia II military offensive, with over 9,000 people – mostly women and girls, but also men and boys – raped in the affected provinces over the course of the year. Data is not yet available on the levels of rape associated with new military offensives in 2010.

Testimonies from the report (more available from Oxfam):

  • “It was a night in 2007 and my family and I were sleeping in our home. There was a knock from outside; assailants ordered my husband to open the door. A group of six men in military uniform, four armed with guns and two unarmed, came into the house. They started to loot all our valuables. They took us outside and forced us to follow them to the forest. Once we arrived in the forest, they freed my husband but forced me to continue going deeper into the bush with them. A commander had chosen me to be his wife and he kept me in the forest for seven months, raping me anytime he wanted. Because he did not think I was capable of escaping, he allowed me to wander alone and this is when I escaped.”
  • “My family and I were all sleeping when the soldiers arrived. They tied my husband’s hands behind his back and then they took turns raping me. Afterwards they took my husband and me to the forest. When my husband resisted they shot and killed him. I spent three weeks in the forest until one night I was able to escape. When I arrived home, I discovered that my little child was dead.”
  • “My husband and I were sleeping in our house. The children were sleeping in the house next door. The soldiers arrived and brought my daughter to our house where they raped her in the presence of my husband and me. Afterwards they demanded that my husband rape my daughter but he refused so they shot him. Then they went into the other house where they found my three sons. They killed all three of my boys. After killing them, two soldiers raped me one after the other,”
  • “We found them in our house. They pillaged everything. They put my husband on the bed and beat him. Then two of the soldiers raped me. This story is so tragic - I can’t believe this happened to me. I prefer death instead of life. Now, the world is without me because of my situation.”