Hundreds of thousands of women, girls and babies have been raped during 12 years of conflict in eastern Congo, victims of a weapon of war that almost always goes unpunished, an expert told U.S. senators Wednesday.
Similar atrocities have occurred in Darfur, the devastated western Sudan region where the United States said in 2004 that genocide was occurring. Women also have been targeted on a wide scale in recent decades during wars in Asia and Europe. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard testimony on the plight of women caught up in violence, emphasizing the Darfur and Congo disasters.
Melanne Verveer, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for global women's issues, said 1,100 rapes are reported every month in the Congo battle area, "which is 36 women and girls raped each day." Many are maimed by their attackers as well, she said. "Rape is employed as a weapon because it is effective," Verveer said. "It destroys the fabric of society from within and does so more efficiently than do guns or bombs."
Rape is an effective weapon of war because it breaks apart families and communities, Verveer said.
"In addition to these rapes and gang rapes, of which there have been hundreds of thousands over the duration of the conflict, the perpetrators frequently mutilate the woman in the course of the attack," she said. "The apparent purpose is to leave a lasting and inerasable signal to others that the woman has been violated." That, she said, in Congo as in many other cultures gives the victim "a lifelong badge of shame." If married, she often is cast aside. If unmarried, she cannot find a mate.
Verveer quoted a report by the Human Rights Integrated Office in Congo that spoke of "a marked lack of seriousness" by law officers and magistrates toward raped females.
"Men accused of rape are often granted bail or given light sentences," Verveer said. "Few cases are reported to the police, and fewer still are in prosecution. Of the 14,000 rape cases registered in the provincial health centers in (Congo) between 2005 and 2007, only 287 were ever taken to trial.
She said police lack proper training, and "there must be more focus on initiatives to strengthen the rule of law and to provide victims with access to justice while offering them protection throughout the judicial process."
Verveer said Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, plans to visit Africa with representatives of the U.N. Security Council. One of their visits, Verveer said, will be to a hospital in the eastern Congo, where one of only two doctors in the region who are capable of the kind of surgery needed to rehabilitate women and girls whose organs are maimed by their attackers. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said the situation is "a shame on the human race."
Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Bob Corker, members of the committee, said they plan to visit the Darfur area in about 10 days, heading first to Sudan's capital, Khartoum.