LONDON/NEW YORK/GENEVA/KINSHASA, 11 August 2003 – Shocked and deeply moved by the brutal and sometimes systematic rape of women and children in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Jessica Lange said today that the world can no longer ignore the atrocities that are being committed daily against the women and children of DRC.
“Of the women and children who survive the stunning brutality, the physical, emotional and psychological damage will last a lifetime. The world must stop the horror and help the survivors. And those responsible must be brought to justice” said Ms. Lange on her return from DRC as UNICEF’s newly appointed Goodwill Ambassador.
Combatants of all armed groups in DRC have committed rape and other forms of sexual violence. These abuses are widespread and systematic in eastern Congo. Women and girls are often raped during military operations as a form of punishment for allegedly “supporting the enemy” and to instil shame and fear within the community. Husbands, fathers and children are sometimes forced to watch. Many rape victims have been abducted and remain missing.
Women and girls are often attacked while engaged in everyday activities – including cultivating fields, collecting firewood or walking to the market. Boys are not immune to rape. In fact, sexual violence against boys and the elderly appear to be on the increase.
“It is overwhelming to witness their tremendous humanity in the face of such unspeakable brutality and the courage and strength with which they are facing the future” said Lange.
“Rape is an affront to human rights, human decency and human dignity” said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. “The world cannot be silent as rape is used as a weapon of war in eastern DRC. Children as young as five and women as old as 80 are among the victims of this extraordinary cruelty. Those who commit these horrendous crimes must never forget that they are accountable.”
Closely connected to the horror of rape is the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The lethal combination of high rates of HIV rates among soldiers and the massive rape in eastern Congo means a possible death sentence for raped girls and women. Data from the Panzi hospital in Bukavu indicates that approximately 27 per cent of rape victims tested positive for HIV. Estimates indicate that 15 per cent of the population is infected in eastern DRC.
The factors fuelling the spread of HIV include sexual violence, the movement of large numbers of displaced people, the breakdown of normal protective structures, the widespread presence of soldiers (especially from countries with relatively high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates such as Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe) and the absence of health care.
The rape of women and children has a devastating impact on entire communities. Children have lost all aspects of their protective environment – with many schools closed, health care facilities non-existent, family members killed before their eyes, siblings forcibly recruited in the armed forces, entire families displaced and communities broken up.
Many young children have lost years of schooling, are raised in camps for displaced people, are living on the streets or have been recruited by armed groups.
The conflict in DRC has shattered the lives of countless children and their families. Tens of thousands of children have been recruited and are used as combatants, sex slaves, porters and cooks by all parties to the conflict. In some cases, children make up an estimated 35 per cent of the troops sent to the front lines. The conflict has also caused a massive breakdown in the economy – causing families to live in conditions of extreme poverty. Seventy per cent of the population, for example, does not have access to formal health care either because they are too poor to pay for services or because they are unable to access facilities.
Rape as a tactic of war was not invented in eastern DRC. Between one quarter and one half million women are estimated to have been raped during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. During the Balkan conflict, at least 20,000 girls and women were raped – with teenage girls particularly targeted. These examples are far from unique. Recent reports from Burundi indicate the increasing rape of girls and women by soldiers – including in one case the rape of an entire classroom of young adolescent girls.
“Rape and sexual violence are not collateral damage. Nor are they inevitable in war time: they are war crimes and perpetrators must be held accountable – by their communities, by the Transitional Government and by the international community through the International Criminal Court” said Bellamy.
Background information on DRC:
• The conflict in DRC is one of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and the most deadly war ever documented in Africa. It has claimed an estimated 3.3 million lives since 1998 – mostly women, children and elderly.
• More people have been killed in this conflict than in most other conflicts since WWII.
• Children account for 55 per cent of the total population.
• Over 12 per cent of children do not reach their first birthday.
• One in eight households in eastern DRC has experienced a violent death since the start of the war in 1998.
• Many children who do survive are traumatized by memories of the horrendous acts of violence against their own families and friends.
• Pregnant women appear two to three times more likely than other women to die a violent death. Lack of transport and drugs as well as poor health services contribute to the problem.
• DRC is the most expensive country to deliver aid to in the world (due to security, poor transport and the sheer size of the country.)
For further information and B-roll, please contact:
Jehane Sedky-Lavandero, UNICEF Media, New York, 212 326-7269, email@example.com
Joyce Brandful, UNICEF Media Kinshasa, 243 81 88 46 746, firstname.lastname@example.org
Damien Personnaz, UNICEF Media, Geneva, 41 22 909 5517, email@example.com
Sarah Epstein, UNICEF Media, UK, 44 207 430 0162, firstname.lastname@example.org
Photographs available to qualified media. E-mail: email@example.com
UNICEF© video of Jessica Lange's trip will be fed on Reuters World News Service on Monday, August 11 at 1135-1145 GMT . The VNR will be available: ACCESS ALL. The signal will also transmit at London BT tower on outgoing local ends: ACAI/D 1 A + B OR ACAI/D 3 (DSIS).