By Katharina Goetze in London (AR No. 190, 17-Oct-08)
When a peace agreement was signed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2002, hopes were high that the country's horrific epidemic of sexual crimes would end.
Instead it worsened with government soldiers and rebels raping hundreds of thousands of girls and women. Although the Congolese government passed tougher laws in 2006 to punish sex crimes, women continue to be raped and alleged perpetrators set free.
Sexual violence in the DRC escalated during the First Congo War, which ended with the overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko, and continued to rise during the Second Congo War.
"There was a dramatic spike in the number of rape cases when armed conflict began during the first war from 1996 to 1997 and then second war from 1998 to 2003," said Human Rights Watch researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg.
"During Congo's second war, it became clear that rape was being used as a weapon of war by all armed groups with devastating consequences for the victims, but also their families and communities."
Rape victims have been as young as infants and toddlers and as old as 80-year-old grandmothers, according to experts. Some women have been raped by groups of soldiers, while others have been abducted and held as sex slaves.
Many victims have been mutilated by their rapists or gravely injured by having wooden sticks or even guns inserted in their vaginas.
According to a recently published report by the All-Party Parliamentary group on the African Great Lakes, APPG, 38,000 people received treatment in the last year for sexual violence in United Nations children's agency medical centres or its partners. Most experts believe that this number represents only a fraction of the victims.
The war-torn provinces of North and South Kivu on the DRC's eastern border with Rwanda are the nexus of this epidemic.
A recent letter by Congolese women's groups to the UN Security Council stated that in April 2008, 880 rape cases were documented by aid groups and UN agencies in North Kivu. The letter estimated that the rape figure represented only a tenth of the actual cases, since most go unreported because of fear, shame and impunity.
Obtaining accurate figures for rape cases is one of the biggest problems for researchers, says Andrew Philip, of Amnesty International, "Many women and girls living in areas still under armed group control are fearful of reprisals if they attempt to report or seek medical care for rape."
Conflict in the troubled Kivu provinces continues as militias struggle over control of eastern DRC's rich deposits of gold, diamonds, coltan, and other ores.
While nearly two dozen militias are present in the Kivus alone, the major armies are the Congolese, the ethnic Tutsi troops of Laurent Nkunda, and various ethnic Hutu insurgent groups. All have committed crimes of sexual violence.
"Rape in Congo has been used as a weapon of war, as a tactic by armed forces to punish communities for supposed support to their enemies, to demonstrate control or to instill fear," said Van Woudenberg.
Rape is often part of an attack on a community and is done to intimidate villagers or provide sexual gratification for soldiers. In many cases, says Philip, ethnicity seems to be a factor in the choice of victims.
Philip believes the tolerance of rape by military commanders has allowed sexual violence to become endemic, "In that sense, I do believe that the perpetration of rape is broadly aligned with war aims."
Rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war is not new.
During the war in Bosnia, mass rapes were committed by Bosnian Serbs against Muslim women.
Similarly, Hutu militias committed widespread sexual violence against Tutsi women as part of the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
According to UN estimates, 250,000 to 500,000 women were raped during the three-month conflict in Rwanda, prompting the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to hand down a conviction against a former mayor in Rwanda, Jean-Paul Akayesu, for rape as an act of genocide four years later.
That sentence, however, didn't prevent the rape of thousands of women in Sierra Leone's civil war which lasted until 2001.
Although the cases of Rwanda and Sierra Leone are statistically difficult to compare with Congo, Van Woudenberg says the outcome has been the same, "Sexual violence has been used as weapons of war in all three of these cases resulting in horrific suffering for tens of thousands of women and girls."
According to a report by the UN Mission in the Congo, the vast majority of rapes recorded during the first half of 2007 seemed to have been committed by government troops and police.
Human Rights Watch, however, noted that identifying alleged perpetrators can be difficult because they often disguise themselves by wearing different uniforms to avoid detection.
The impunity experienced by soldiers raping civilians has also increased the proportion of sexual crimes committed by civilians.
Aid groups and UN officials reported that in 2004, only about 13 per cent of all rapes were committed by civilians. Three years later, the figure had risen to 40 per cent.
UNICEF's DRC-based Protection Specialist Pernille Ironside pointed out children are often targeted by civilians, "In some areas, as many as half of the victims are children."
Although the DRC's rape laws were strengthened in 2006, the legal standing of victims remains weak because harsh sentences are rarely imposed.
Rather, the number of out-of-court settlements - often mediated by tribal leaders or local authority officials - has increased.
Such arrangements not only violate civil and military law, they subvert efforts to control the rape epidemic.
"These settlements are a major problem because they rarely represent the interest of the victim," said APPG coordinator Stephen Carter. "Men have been known to have set aside a couple of goats as compensation before even raping the girl. It's a sign of the complete breakdown of the rule of law, where people have no other system."
But the popularity of such deals is understandable, says Philip, since many victims are reluctant to go to court.
Since most magistrates are poorly trained, underpaid, and not inclined to help rape victims, there is a widespread lack of confidence in the justice system.
Also, women are chronically underrepresented among judicial personnel and must face male judges, prosecutors, and police who often have a limited understanding of sexual violence, according to experts.
The ineffectiveness of Congolese courts is evidenced by the low number of convictions.
Even if victims are willing to face a court trial, for many the fees demanded by prosecutors and judges, legal or otherwise, are prohibitive.
The difficulties are compounded for those living in the countryside who face long and expensive travel to courts located in cities.
Proving rape in court can be difficult, so the UN Human Rights Office has introduced a standardised medical certificate intended to simplify the process. But according to Carter, it seems to have complicated matters because judges are demanding the certificates, which are not always available, before proceeding with rape cases.
While impunity plays a part in the rape epidemic, the motives for the crime can vary.
For her documentary, The Greatest Silence, filmmaker Lisa F Jackson interviewed militia members who admitted to many rapes. Some had lost count of how many women they had raped, but one estimated it could have been 25.
"No one is prosecuting them and when I asked them about the law they just laughed at me," said Jackson. "Obviously, there is another law in the bush, they consider it their right if they need a woman and their wives are not there.
"Some of the... militias I spoke to said that it gives them power before the battle. One even told me that if his wife was raped to save the Congo he wouldn't intervene."
There is evidence that some perpetrators of sexual violence are coerced into committing these crimes.
"We have had a small number of testimonies from armed group fighters, saying that they were 'expected' to rape by their commanders [and] that food rations might be withheld or reduced if they didn't rape," said Philip. "This seems to be more so with child fighters whom commanders seek to brutalise."
Whatever the motive, the attacks continue at an alarming rate. In some villages, so many women and children have suffered from sexual violence that rape has lost its stigma and support for the victims has built up, say experts.
They say local aid groups play an important role in raising awareness among communities and bringing families back together.
But as the conflict goes on, most feel they can't prevent the crime from continuing or from destabilising communities, widening ethnic divisions and blocking reconciliation.
"Rape is cheaper than bullets and it has a more lasting effect," said Jackson. "It sends a ripple effect that goes forward for generations."
Katharina Goetze is an IWPR reporter in London.