An independent United Nations expert today called for international action to help women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) who have been victimized by violence, including sexual abuse and rape, perpetrated by both militia and Government troops and fostered by a culture of impunity.
Yakin Ertürk, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, described the gruesome atrocities she witnessed when visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) last year. “I have seen little girls, women whose hands were chopped off, who were abducted, sexually enslaved, forced to eat the flesh of dead relatives, etcetera, etcetera,” she said. “Things are quite dire.”
Eastern Congo in particular has received greater attention because of the presence there of foreign groups which she said were the “main perpetrators of violence against women as well as the civilian population in general.”
But she cautioned that the problems are not limited to eastern Congo; in Equator Province “the army and national police are among the main perpetrators.” Ms. Ertürk cited a mass rape by soldiers in April, which led to seven soldiers being sentenced to life imprisonment before they later “escaped or walked out of the military prison.”
She decried the fact that in the peace process, efforts to demobilize the militia do not include a justice component. “These militants are demobilized and reintegrated either into civilian life or into the army and they continue the kinds of violent acts they were responsible for during the armed conflict, as civilians or as soldiers in the national army.”
The focus on disarmament and reintegration of ex-combatants in the peace process “does not take into consideration the sufferings of women or the needs of women,” she said. “Those are missing links in the peace process.”
The expert, who serves in an unpaid, independent capacity, urged international help for women who have been victimized. “Many of these women who have survived are today human rights defenders who are working diligently on the ground to respond to the gap created by the State in terms of providing medical as well as other care services to women who are continually being raped,” she said.
“There is an urgent need to mobilize support for these women who are working both under security threats as well as severe resource” problems, she added. “We must support these grass-roots initiatives because that’s how the country is going to be rebuilt.”
Countless victims are in inaccessible areas with little or no form of redress. “The justice system, the penitentiary system, is in deplorable conditions,” she said. Often victims must pay for access to the courts in what she called a “major obstacle to justice.”
She called for urgent measures to address security and justice simultaneously and stressed that women need more than compensation – they need empowerment.
Ms. Ertürk’s report will be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in March.