Rape and sexual violence against women has long been associated with the Democratic Republic of Congo, being described as the "rape capital of the world". This has been reinforced by a study by US researchers who refute rape statistics previously estimated for the Congo, declaring that figures have been grossly underestimated.
The study reveals that more than 400,000 women were raped in the Congo last year, and between 2006 and 2007, around 1,100 women were raped in the country every single day. The study was published in the American Journal of Public health and shone a questioning light on the women's organisations working in Congo. The statement that women are raped at 26 times the rate originally thought, not only reveals the magnitude of the problem, but also shows that a lot more work needs to be done to get any kind of hold on it.
The study also showed that the rape problem is more than just a by product of war torn eastern Congo. Sure, rebel soldiers are known for infiltrating towns and villages, to loot and use the women as weapons of war. However, far away from the areas of ongoing war, in the relatively peaceful northwest province of Equateur, the study reports rape figures just as high as those in the war torn east. It seems that a disregard for women's rights in the Congo is deeper ingrained into society than being just a subsequence of war.
The report declared that 60% of victims had been forced to have sex by their husband or partners. It indicated that rape had gradually become a more acceptable crime over the years. The study reports that the number of women reporting sexual violence from intimate partners is almost double those that report rape.
Aside from the rape crisis, it is politically and economically much more of a struggle simply being a woman in DR Congo. And education, income, and area of residence are not a deciding factor on the likelihood of sexual violence. 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, rightly says, "The focus on sexual violence in conflict overshadows the problem of gender inequality and domestic violence in this country".
The country's conflicts may have been the catalyst, which allowed rebel organizations to carry out their horrific rape campaigns. However the culture of sexual violence against women have since become more embedded and accepted as normal occurrences in Congo.
To think about women's rights in the west (and some of the east), you might rightly recall the recent 'Slut Walk' demonstrations. Women protested their right to wear what they felt like, and to not be blamed in any kind of way if they are the victim of a rape.
I think the situation in Congo, even in its severity, verifies the Slut Walk point. Rape has never been about a woman being too provocative. It isn't even particularly sexual. As a byproduct of war, and as an epidemic that has been festering in a volatile country, we can clearly see that it is about power.
The fundamental problem is Gender inequality and the country could see a lot of changes in this crisis if there were more women in places of authority.
Image from UNHCR.