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Congo, Democratic Republic of the

Even where fighting has ended, sexual violence scars children and women in DR Congo

© UNICEF video
Selina, 12, is a victim of sexual assault. Her story shocking but not rare. It is believed that hundreds of thousands of women and children have been raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

By David McKenzie

In its report, ‘Child Alert: Democratic Republic of Congo’, UNICEF is highlighting the effect on children of years of conflict and unrest. This is the last of three Child Alert special reports by UNICEF correspondent David McKenzie

KISANGANI, Democratic Republic of Congo, 4 August 2006 – Through the mists and past the dense forests on the edge of the Congo River in Kisangani, thousands of militia and government soldiers have set up camp. It is a bold experiment in integrating former enemies, a vital step for a peaceful future.

But the women and children of this area are suffering from the presence of these past combatants.

“Sexual violence has become a daily phenomenon here,” says social worker Michel Magayane, “We get wind of cases every day.” Mr. Magayane says the majority of the culprits are in the military, and he believes that more than 70 per cent are cases of child rape. Their youngest victim he has seen was four years old.

Although the fighting has stopped in Kisangani, sexual violence is a major hangover from the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Rape as a weapon of war

Selina, 12, sits in a darkened room, wearing a pink dress with white trim. The scars of her ordeal are still visible and she struggles to tell her story.

“When I was fetching water, I felt someone come behind me,” she recalls. “I saw that it was somebody in military uniform. He took a stone and stuffed it in my mouth and carried me off into the bushes.” Her cries were not heard at the nearby road and the soldier proceeded to rape her. When people finally came to her aid, he had fled.

Selina’s story is shocking, but it is not rare. It is believed that hundreds of thousands of women and children have been raped in this country. Sexual violence has scarred DRC.

“During the war here, rape was used as a weapon to humiliate women and to dislocate families,” says Professor Pierra Kalala, a psychologist who has worked throughout the country’s worst-affected regions. “Most women live in a state of fear.”

© UNICEF video
Social worker Michel Magayane plays a game with a nine-year-old rape victim. After two months in hospital, she has recovered physically but is still afraid of most adults.

Danger of sexually transmitted disease

The consequences of rape are severe. Especially in a country without proper medical care, violent rape can cause long-term physical damage. Fistulas are often left untreated and sexually transmitted diseases undetected. Women flee their districts because of the stigma they face. In Kisangani, culprits often brag about their ‘conquests’, and cases are rarely brought to court.

Men hide under the veneer of local superstitions to commit terrible acts. They say that to rape a young girl will give good luck in business or bring them money. In Kisangani, a nine-year-old girl was raped by a teenager and had to spend two months in hospital. The culprit still taunts her when he sees her. There is little justice for the vulnerable here.

If nothing changes, DRC is sitting on a time bomb. An estimated 1.1 million people are living with HIV here. Women and children who are raped by military men face a very real prospect of getting the disease. And with the country’s health system virtually non-existent, HIV and AIDS have the opportunity to spread quickly.

Stopping the scourge of violence

Yet in what seems like a hopeless situation, there is hope. Children are getting together to form youth groups and talk about subjects like sexual violence. They are standing up to the adult generation by speaking openly on these sensitive issues and protecting themselves from harm.

The young people discuss issues such as HIV/AIDS openly and distribute pamphlets on ways to protect themselves from sexual assault. They try to bring the issues up at home with their parents and elders.

But there is a feeling that the adults are not yet listening.

Mr. Magayane believes that the responsibility for stopping the scourge of violence lies with those who lived through the war. “What worries me is that adults are supposed to be protecting the children. What we are doing is killing our own future.”




20 July 2006:
UNICEF correspondent David McKenzie reports on children and women who are victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
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