Growing conflict in Congo sees '70 women' a day sexually assaulted by armed men

Doctors Without Borders says more than twice as many women in recent months have sought treatment for sexual assault in some displacement camps outside the eastern city of Goma. Credit: AP

Sexual violence by armed men against displaced women is increasing rapidly in eastern Congo as years long conflicts continue, according to a charity.

In displacement sites every day an average of 70 sexual assault victims visit clinics run by Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French acronym MSF.

Conflict has been ongoing in eastern Congo for nearly three decades, with the United Nations estimating more than 130 armed groups are active in the country's northeast, vying for land or resources.

Others have formed to protect their communities.

More than four million people were displaced within Congo because of conflict in 2022, the most in Africa and second in the world only to Ukraine, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.

Of nearly 100,000 people who arrived at displacement sites near the eastern city of Goma in July, almost 60% were women and girls, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Doctors Without Borders treated 1,500 female victims of sexual violence in just three displacement camps outside Goma in July, more than double the number in May, the organisation said in a September 18 report.

Survivors and aid workers say displacement rip people from their livelihoods and leaves women and girls vulnerable to assault.

Sexual violence has long been used as a weapon of war by armed fighters in the region.

A survivor speaking to the Associated Press, spoke of a hooded man who burst into her tent while her children were out searching for food, then raped her in the displacement camp where she had fled war in eastern Congo.

“I wanted to scream (but) he took my mouth and he threatened me with death,” said the mother of four, who was abandoned by her husband after she became disabled in a motorcycle accident several years ago.

She now lives in fear and hesitates to let her children leave her side.

The 42-year-old mother of four had fled war in eastern Congo. Credit: AP

Like many other displaced single mothers, the 42-year-old mother-of-four is struggling to feed her family and is unsure when she might return home.

With the help of her two sons and two daughters, she had cultivated her fields of cassava, potatoes and beans. But in February, armed rebels and Congolese security forces clashed close to her home in the northeastern village of Karenga.

“We were forced to flee, leaving behind all our belongings,” she said.

She was then forced to bring her family to one of more than 100 sites where displaced people have gathered around Goma.

After three months of struggling to feed her family in a camp with tens of thousands of other displaced people, she sent her children to find food. They hadn’t eaten all day, she said. That’s when a stranger found her alone and raped her.

After the attack, she confided in a friend who directed her to a clinic run by MSF.

The charity group along with United Nations agencies and local organisations help provide medical services, psychological treatment, latrines and other measures to improve conditions for survivors of sexual violence.

But their role is limited, as deliveries of food and other basic needs to the camp are infrequent, said Rebecca Kihiu, MSF’s regional sexual violence activity manager.

The conditions at displacement camps leave women vulnerable to abuse. Shelters are little more than plastic sheets, with no way of securing them from intruders, Ms Kihiu said.

Armed men lurk outside the camp, where women and girls are forced to venture to find firewood and other necessities.

“They know that they will go and find these assaults outside the camp. But they have no option,” Kihiu said.

Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been displaced over the past year in eastern Congo. Credit: AP

Already scarred by fleeing their homes, survivors of sexual assault in camps like Bulengo live with the experience long afterward.

“It’s a trauma that will stay for a lifetime,” said Esmeralda Alabre, coordinator for UNFPA gender-based violence programming in northeast Congo.

A mother-of-eight in the same displacement camp received some medical help after she was raped. But she is still afraid, especially at night. She now arranges her children around her when they sleep, hoping their presence will deter a future aggressor.

Kihiu says some groups of women band together on trips outside the camp for added security, but this tactic falters if they need to split up to collect resources more efficiently.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...