More than 3,600 women, children and men were subjected to rape and other sexual violence in Congo over a four-year period by the country’s defense and security forces or armed rebels, according to a UN report released on Wednesday.
The report by the UN’s human rights office in Congo said the period from 2010 through 2013 “has been characterized by the persistence of incidents of sexual violence that were extremely serious due to their scale, their systematic nature and the number of victims.”
About half the 3,645 attacks were by rebel groups and half by government forces, though the percentages varied year by year, the report said.
The victims ranged in age from 2 to 80 years old, and 73% were women, 25% were children and 2% were men, it said.
Violent sexual crimes were committed during attacks on villages, and alongside killings, abductions and looting and many women were raped in their homes, while working on farms, going to market or fetching water, the report said.
In some incidents in volatile eastern Congo, “large-scale rape has been used as a weapon of war or to punish civilians for their perceived collaboration with a rival party to the conflict in the struggle for power over areas rich in natural resources,” it said.
In recent years, the Congolese government has made commitments to address impunity for sexual violence crimes.
Zainab Hawa Bangura, the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, signed a communique on March 30 with Congo’s Prime Minister Matata Ponya Mapon in which he reiterated the government’s commitment to preventing and combating sexual violence in conflict and to combating impunity.
Bangura stressed at Wednesday’s news conference that combating sexual violence cannot be done in isolation.
“If you don’t respect your women peacetime, you cannot protect them in conflict,” she said.
The UN said it has observed “slow but steady progress” in prosecutions, including against 39 soldiers accused of crimes against humanity including rape stemming from alleged sexual violence against at least 102 women and 33 girls in and around the town of Minova in eastern Congo in November 2012.
But the UN said most cases “are never investigated or prosecuted, and very few are reported.”
It cited fears of stigmatization, retaliation and the costs for victims and the difficulties of arresting perpetrators and deficiencies in Congo’s judicial and prison systems.
In the 18 months from July 2011 to December 2013, the UN said it recorded 187 convictions by military courts for sexual violence, mostly rape. It said 136 of those convicted were from the army but only three were senior officers, 47 were from other state bodies, and just four were from armed groups.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay told a news conference launching the report that more prosecutions are crucial to fight impunity, including against “those suspected of having command responsibility.”
“Unfortunately the political will at the highest level is not sufficiently translated on the ground,” she said. “Not all Congolese authorities are prepared or equipped to conduct thorough investigations into all cases of sexual violence and to prosecute the most senior officers.”
Pillay expressed hope that the International Criminal Court, which is already involved in Congo prosecutions, will “pick up and follow through on this report,” adding, “it’s wide open to them to investigate.”