Congo Rape Crisis: Study Reveals Shocking New Numbers

According to a new study, the pandemic of sexual violence in war-torn Congo is far worse than previously reported—with four women raped every five minutes. Danielle Shapiro investigates what the numbers mean.

Sometimes the attacks happen on their way to and from the market or their cassava fields. Sometimes they happen deep into the night, when the women are shaken from sleep with violence. Sometimes their attacker is a soldier, a rebel, a neighbor; sometimes it's their husband. The rapes are so common, they’ve become a sickening part of everyday life in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

Gallery: Congo's Resilient Rape Survivors

And yet, despite growing international attention, it turns out that rights organizations may have underestimated the magnitude of Congo’s rape crisis: according to a study published online today in the American Journal of Public Health, women are raped at 26 times the rate previously reported by the United Nations. Equally alarming, women across this sprawling central African nation now report sexual violence—not only those who live in the conflict-riddled east.

Over the last 15 years, the crippling conflict in eastern Congo has cost more than 5 million lives—more than any war since World War II—through violence between rebel groups, the Congolese military and at times sovereign nations like Rwanda, along with disease and poverty. Rape and sexual violence are often used as weapons of war.

Based on a national survey, completed with the help of Congo’s government and international organizations, the study found that roughly 1.8 million women aged 15 to 49 reported a history of rape. About 3 million experienced intimate partner sexual violence. And in the year leading up to the 2007 survey, about 400,000 women said they had been raped, or four women every five minutes. Factors such as education, income, and area of residence (rural or urban) neither protected nor put women at greater risk.

“The magnitude of violence alone screams for the reaction and attention of the international community for a coordinated comprehensive effort,” said author Amber Peterman.

“I was overwhelmed, but I wasn’t shocked,” said Lisa Shannon, founder of Run for Congo Women and A Thousand Sisters, a non-profit dedicated to ending violence in Congo and mass atrocities worldwide. Shannon has been working with the study’s three authors to get the word out about their findings. “We’ve known for a long time that the numbers coming out of Congo were vastly underreported.”

Compare these new numbers to the roughly 15,300 cases of reported rapes for 2008 and again for 2009, cited by the U.N. The organization’s figures tend to be conservative because they can only report information on sexual violence to the Security Council that it can verify and support, said Margot Wallström, the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, in an email. U.N. staff are also limited in whom they can interview. And to be sure, the figures cited are always accompanied by the caveat that the reports are likely just a fraction of the actual number of incidents.

Despite the continuing violence in the east, the country’s northwest has been relatively peaceful—which made the study’s report that the remote northwestern province of Équateur had rates of rape nearly as high as those in eastern provinces of North Kivu and Orientale all the more shocking.

“The fear when you look at Équateur is that this rape pandemic is not contained; that this rape pandemic can and has escalated well beyond the conflict-affected areas,” said Shannon, who has written a book with Zainab Salbi called A Thousand Sisters: My Journey into the Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman about her experiences in Congo. “The implications for Congolese women are really terrifying.”

Beatrix Attinger Colijn, a senior adviser and the head of the Sexual Violence Unit in the office of the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General on the Rule of Law, also points out that the study’s findings on intimate partner sexual violence are important—and point to the vast inequities women in Congo experience. In the study, the numbers of women reporting such violence are nearly two times higher than women reporting rape.

“The focus on sexual violence in conflict, it overshadows the problem of gender inequality and domestic violence in this country,” Colijn said by telephone from her office in Kinshasa. She works as part of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo. known as MONUSCO.

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The results reported in the study, which will be published in the peer-reviewed journal’s print edition next month, are still considered an underestimate. They do not include men and boys or individuals younger than 15 and older than 49. Underreporting because of stigma, shame and fear may also have affected the findings. The study’s authors used the survey data, a sample of about 3,400 women, along with population estimates (the country is home to 60 to 70 million people) to calculate the levels of sexual violence.

Yet the study provides the first numerical estimate using nationally representative data gathered through household-level interviews, said Amber Peterman, lead author and a gender development specialist at the International Food Policy Research Institute. She and her co-authors worked on the study in their free time, with no donor support. Most other estimates on sexual violence in Congo have been specific to certain regions and/or relied on data collected from health centers, hospitals, police, or other authorities and service providers. That is, they relied on victims coming forward themselves.

“The study is significant not only because it reveals greater numbers, but because the data is internationally recognized [and] produced in partnership with the DRC government,” Peterman said. “The magnitude of violence alone screams for the reaction and attention of the international community for a coordinated comprehensive effort—not to treat, but to prevent violence.”

Still, some are skeptical of the study’s reliability. Chouchou Namegabe, the co-founder and coordinator of the South Kivu Women’s Media Association based in Bukavu, feels the results, especially those on intimate partner sexual violence, are too much of an extrapolation.

Special Representative Wallström noted in an email that how terms like “sexual violence” and “intimate partner violence” are defined can be one reason for disparities among various studies. Others question whether the sample of women interviewed was representative. And some point out that, because the data come from 2006 and 2007, it may not reflect what’s happening on the ground in Congo now.

Still, Tony Gambino, the former mission director in Congo for the United States Agency for International Development, said that he’s seen no evidence to suggest the situation is better for women now than it has been. U.N. figures on sexual violence for the last few years have also remained relatively stable.

Despite some reservations, Wallström lauded the study for “shedding light on risk factors” and thus moving “the analysis beyond isolated incident reports to convey a sense of patterns.” She also noted that the “study speaks to the phenomenon of increased social tolerance for sexual violence, due to its prevalence in conflict, and to factors linked with conflict, such as impunity.”

Jason Stearns, the author of the recently published book Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, said the report points to the urgent need to reform Congo’s security services and rebuild collapsed institutions like the courts, the police, the army, customs, and administration.

“We have to take action immediately,” he said. Efforts could include employing more female police officers and training them to work with victims, and holding senior officials responsible for rape committed by their troops. “These are things that are pretty straight forward, albeit not necessarily easy to do.”

In November, the Congolese people are scheduled to vote in national elections. Gambino, the former USAID Congo chief, pointed to the upcoming contest—if it can be free and fair—as a critical opportunity for citizens to hold their government accountable for not protecting them; for these high rates of rape.

“Democratic elections and sexual violence are closely connected,” he said. The report reveals that “the people have not been front and center for way too long. They are on the margins. Free and fair elections are how you put people front and center.”