UNITED NATIONS (IPS) — Imagine an orphanage where over 300 children born out of rape have been abandoned because of the shame and stigma associated with sexual violence. Imagine a town where, in the last year, 11 infants between the ages of six months and one year, and 59 small children from one to three years old, have been raped.
What does the future of these children hold? The story of sexual violence in conflict is as old as war itself. It knows no boundaries – location, ethnicity, religion, or age.
The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) know all too well the pain and suffering that comes with sexual violence. According to a recent report by the Ministry of Gender, in 2012 alone there were 15,654 reported cases of sexual violence – a 52 percent increase from 2011.
Of these, 98 percent were perpetrated against females. In conflict-affected contexts in DRC, the average age of survivors is less than 21, with a third of all survivors falling between 12 and 17 years of age. In 2012, 82 percent of all survivors had not completed primary school.
These are not just abstract numbers; these are children born of rape who are abandoned, women and girls who struggle with the debilitating physical and emotional repercussions day in and day out, and men and boys who suffer in silence because of the shame and stigma associated with this crime. All survivors must access lifesaving services and all partners must come together not only to prevent future attacks, but also to enable survivors to rebuild their lives.
But this conflict did not create the scourge of sexual violence we face in DRC today. The roots of such widespread and rampant violence – specifically women’s inequality and the abuse of power – have been there for centuries. In the DRC and worldwide, gender-based violence is the most pervasive, yet least reported, human rights abuse. Conflict brings violence, insecurity and an environment of impunity, which in turn exacerbates the prevalence of sexual violence.
To effectively eradicate conflict-related sexual violence we must redouble our efforts to promote women’s rights as human rights and create viable systems that will end impunity for perpetrators and send a strong message that this most extreme and pervasive abuse of power will not be tolerated. We must be loud and clear: it will be prosecuted. It will be punished.
Sexual violence in conflict settings, particularly in Eastern DRC, presents unique challenges, According to the latest secretary-general’s report on sexual violence in conflict, there are more than 44 armed groups operating in Eastern DRC alone, some of which are from neighbouring countries.
Nearly all of these groups have been implicated in committing sexual violence crimes. Elements of the armed forces and police have also been accused of such crimes. In this context, engaging a wide variety of state and non-state actors and ensuring that sexual violence is not used as a tactic of war for military advantage or political gain, is particularly complex.
The economic and human costs of sexual and other forms of gender-based violence on communities and countries are tremendous. Its impact is devastating, including the loss of lives and livelihoods, rejection by families and communities, and serious, often life-threatening reproductive and mental health consequences. However, sexual violence is not inevitable.
The government of DRC has recognised the devastating consequences of this scourge and taken steps to change the narrative of sexual violence in the country. In 2006, it passed a law broadening the definition of sexual violence and promoting stronger penalties for perpetrators, one of the most far-reaching laws of its type.
In 2009, the country developed the National Strategy on Gender-Based Violence, and in March 2013 the Government and the United Nations signed a Joint Communique, outlining concrete actions the government would take to eradicate these offences.
These are all steps in the right direction, but much more needs to be done. Laws need to be enforced and aggressors must be prosecuted and convicted. Building the rule of law in an immense territory where customary laws are, in many locations, the only recognised authority represents an enormous challenge for the legal organisations and stakeholders engaged in fighting the impunity of perpetrators of sexual and other forms of gender-based violence.
The country is not alone in this fight, however. The United Nations system, including peacekeeping forces, also has a direct responsibility to support and enable national initiatives.
We undertook this joint mission to the DRC to deepen political commitment by enhancing the participation of democratic institutions, political leaders and civil society.
Together, our goal is to make sure that the commitments that have been made and the work that has been done by the government and the U.N. make a difference in the lives of the women, girls, boys and men who live in fear every day.
We commit ourselves, our teams and our organisations to work towards the elimination of sexual violence in the DRC. To make significant progress, we need the support of the international community, of the entire U.N. system and of the government. We also advocate for greater donor attention to support basic services for survivors of sexual violence, including education, accessible health care and commodities, safe shelter, livelihood and other psychosocial interventions.
The story of sexual violence in the DRC is far from over, but working together we can end what has long been called history’s greatest silence and write the final chapter on this dehumanising and degrading violation. Eliminating gender-based violence and empowering women and girls is at the heart of this country’s path to peace and development.
This opinion piece originally appeared in Inter Press Service