Sexual violence used as a weapon of war in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo continues unabated as more than a decade of conflict in the area drags on. More than 8,000 women were raped in the region in 2009 alone, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
The shocking numbers and the increased public attention is useful to promote understanding of the widespread atrocities that continue to harm both individual women and their communities. But the sexual violence is also creating ongoing public health issues as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the national government struggle to support growing numbers of Congolese people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA).
Since 1996, DRC has faced two wars, and clashes continue in the eastern part of the country. DRC is also home to the largest United Nations peacekeeping force in the world. But the peacekeeping force’s own involvement in acts of sexual violence undermines its authority and furthers the area’s destabilisation. So far, lasting peace has evaded the country and the repercussions of war are felt across society.
Numerous military factions have used rape as a means of intimidating local populations and laying claim to areas. The factions include militants from the national army, various rebel groups, and the UN peacekeeping force.
The 8,000 additional cases this year add to uncountable earlier cases. Precise numbers of how many people have been affected in total are unavailable, due to victims remaining silent because of stigma or fear of retaliation from their aggressors. However, some estimates count 100,000 reported cases, which likely grossly under-estimates the actual statistics.
One of the consequences of such widespread rape, in addition to injury, unwanted pregnancy, social isolation, and post-traumatic stress disorder, is HIV/AIDS. Combatants in DRC have an HIV rate of 60 percent. So as they assault women (and to a lesser extent men), they are spreading the virus. Women also are two to four times more likely than men to contract HIV through unprotected sex, and with open wounds in the vagina stemming from forceful entry, there are even more accessible entry points for the virus.
Pierre-Yves Brundseaux, Programme Officer for UNAIDS in DRC says that while there have not been scientific studies on the impact of sexual violence in the specific areas in eastern Congo, “Organizations that work against sexual violence against women have reported up to 20 percent seropositivity [positive blood tests for HIV] in victims with access to medical care.”
Just as violence has exacerbated the HIV/AIDS problem, so has the violence weakened the infrastructure available to deal with the epidemic. Dr Omba Kalonda, Professor of Public Health at the Free University in Brussels (L’Université Libre de Bruxelle), describes the impact lack of proper care is having on PLWHA: “The national rate of the illness is 4.5 percent, but the mortality rate, specifically, is very high due to a lack of appropriate treatment and the general poverty of the population.” There are estimated to be between 15 and 30 million PLWHA in DRC, of which only 15,000 have access to treatment.
Some of the steps taken by the Congolese government in addressing sexual violence and HIV include implementing a law in 2006 to enable survivors of sexual violence to take their aggressors to court, and naming HIV as one of five central pillars of the national strategy for growth and poverty reduction. However there is a significant gap between the rhetoric and action of the Congolese government.
While there is a national AIDS programme, 98 percent of funding comes from international donors, leading to fluctuations in care access at the whim of the international financial sector. And while the government has called for free access to anti-retroviral drugs, currently only 10 percent of needs are met, according to Brundseaux.
Another issue is the centralisation of HIV care in big cities, particularly Kinshasa and Lubumbashi. Kalonda says “these interventions only concern large cities and the preliminary work of screening the population is far from being accomplished. Therefore, there still remains zones seriously affected by the illness in the rest of the country where there exists neither testing nor treatment for those infected.”
The conflicts in DRC have exacerbated the country’s HIV/AIDS problem, and have limited the government’s response to the epidemic. The need for stabilisation across all sectors of society is linked to the need for the restoration of peace. It is also linked to the need for a fortified government commitment to the security, health and wellbeing of all Congolese citizens.
A MediaGlobal Article