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It seems like every day a new study on sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) appears, each with a completely different picture of the situation and totally different statistics. Over the past two weeks my colleague, Peter Orr, and I have been in DRC interviewing people about protection of civilians and about sexual violence. The one thing that is totally clear is that no one has the full picture.
The fact is that accurate statistics on sexual violence are extremely hard to collect in any country. Many victims are ashamed or scared to come forward, so the statistics lack all of the unreported cases, which are often more than the reported ones. This is even more marked in a country like the DRC, where many rapes occur in isolated, conflict-affected areas with incredibly limited access for victims to report.
Congolese women have told us that if you do report the rape and police action is taken, in most cases the alleged perpetrator will be released straight away pending his court hearing. Even if he is sentenced to prison, he is likely to escape or bribe his way out, and his victim would then be at even greater risk. This does not provide a great incentive to report. Many women are even more reluctant to report rape because of societal pressure on husbands to abandon their wives in these situations. And rape cases are frequently dealt with by making informal compensation “arrangements” between the perpetrator and the victim’s family.
The statistics lack many of these numbers.
Apart from the official statistics on sexual violence, which are collected in the DRC by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), there have been multiple studies carried out that reveal interesting points. But all of them are of limited areas or caseloads and for particular time periods. DRC is an enormous country, and the variation of dynamics between areas is huge. So a study of one area at one time – which might be during a period of active fighting or a period of calm – cannot be said to apply to all of the country.
There have been studies that suggest soldiers in the Congolese army and the police are no longer high in the statistics for perpetrating rape. Yet we talked to NGOs that provide services to survivors of sexual violence and were told that the levels of rape by armed men were similar in their area when it was taken over by rebel groups and when it was held by the Congolese army. We have been in areas where the statistics show that the majority of rapes were by army and police for certain periods. At the same time, rapes by members of illegal armed groups are less likely to be reported, because the victims are less likely to know the identity of their attackers in these cases and these attacks tend to take place in more remote areas.
There have also been studies that suggest a high number of female perpetrators of sexual violence. Yet it is not clear what this means, since some of the statistics have counted women managing prostitution as sexual violence perpetrators – not the common understanding of a perpetrator of sexual violence. And there have been studies suggesting high numbers of male victims of sexual violence – a statistic that is hard to clarify, as the stigma for men to report sexual violence is even higher. Further, most recent studies have shown a very high prevalence of sexual violence by civilians, although again this depends on the area where the data is collected.
One could ask whether the data matters. After all, it is clear that sexual violence is a huge problem in the DRC. And when we sat down a few days ago with a group of women who told us horrific stories about the violence they had personally suffered, you can feel that collecting the details about why it happens and where it happens is missing the point when the need is to respond to these cases.
If we are serious about preventing sexual violence, then the data does matter because you can’t plan actions without understanding the context in which these cases occur. The strategy to deal with sexual violence by teachers in schools is different from the strategy to deal with sexual violence in remote fields by illegal armed groups. And you can't plan to respond to the needs of sexual violence survivors if you don't have an idea of where you need to put resources. For these reasons, sufficient funding must be made available to support systematic data collection on sexual violence in the DRC.