In the latest installment of the hellish nightmare that Congolese women face, the AP reports that last month, Rwandan and Congolese rebels gang-raped nearly 200 women during four days in Luvungi, DRC. This took place 10 miles from a UN peacekeeping camp. It is in the area Hillary Clinton visited last year, where she promised $17 million to help stop sexual violence in the Congo.
Some women are still hiding. Some are only now coming out of the forest, naked and terrified.
The DRC continues to be known as the rape capital of the world. Eastern Congo has huge mineral reserves that help support the rebel groups in the area. The UN peacekeeping force has been asked to leave by the government, which points out that it has not protected civilians.
A recent study, "Now, the world is without me," by Oxfam and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative shows that while the majority of rape victims surveyed were gang-raped by armed men, there was a 17-fold increase in rapes perpetrated by civilians between 2004 and 2008. The rapes, tortures, beatings, and maimings carried out by armed soldiers have created a culture of rape within a formerly peaceful society.
Nobody knows how many women have been raped in the DRC. Over 5,000 people were raped in South Kivu only in 2009, according to the UN. The International Rescue Committee stated in The Lancet in 2008 that it had assisted over 40,000 Congolese rape survivors since 2003 in the province of South Kivu alone. The UN reported 27,000 sexual assaults for the year 2006. Most women do not come forward in time to receive HIV treatment, other medical treatment, or legal protection, which is in short supply in any case.
The media has filled reams of newsprint with details of guns and sticks in vaginas, mutilated bodies, sexual slavery and more. This is important to report. But why is there so little written about who is responsible for letting these atrocities go on and on and on?
When an individual rape occurs, there is a clear villain--the rapist. This is true for these mass rapes as well, of course--the ultimate culprits are the men who rape and nobody should deny that. But when there is a unified campaign of rape and hundreds of women are attacked in one vicious swoop as their supposed protectors sit helplessly by a few miles away, then it is much too simplistic to talk about rape solely in terms of individual men and women.
A recent documentary film features Congolese rapists talking about what they did. One repentant soldier approaches his victim and offers her a pig as proof of his remorse. The UN has not offered even a pig; on the contrary, it remained stonily silent for the last month, and has now decided to send two envoys to investigate. There has not been a word from the Secretary-General's office.
Perhaps UN Women, the new UN women's agency, will ensure that such inertia and ineptitude will be things of the past. In the meantime, writing this column seems as futile an act as anything else that is or isn't being done. Women are living in terror and pain. Cruelty and barbarism reign in Congo, and nobody is doing a thing to stop it.
Sohaila Abdulali is Director of Communications at AIDS-Free World, an international advocacy organization that works to promote more urgent and effective global responses to HIV/AIDS.