Girls as young as 18 months are being abducted from their homes, raped, and then returned to their families in a rural community in a village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Officials at the Panzi Hospital in the province of Sud-Kiva have tracked dozens of cases of sexual violence against children under the age of 10 in and around the village of Kavumu.
“Last year, when we started treating these babies, we reached 35 recorded cases that required heavy surgery,” Denis Mukwege, the gynecologist who founded the Panzi Hospital said during a visit to the European Parliament on Thursday.
“Women and girls have been attacked throughout the 20 year conflict in Congo, but what is particularly disturbing and new about this is that it’s a pattern of children specifcially being attacked from a specific community,” Naama Haviv said in a phone interview with ThinkProgress.
Haviv, who heads the Panzi Foundation, a Los Angeles-based charity organization that supports the work of the Panzi Hospital, said that what makes this spate of rapes so alarming is that the children appear to have been singled out. Before, she said, some children were raped along with their mothers, or after they were caught in the crossfire.
“[But] this is a community that seems to have been specifically targeted and it’s specifically the children in the community who are being targeted,” she said. “These perpetrators are not stealing into the houses at night and raping the women and then the children. They’re stealing away the children and raping them, and bringing them [back] home.”
More than 5.4 million people have been killed in a war that spread across the Congo and beyond in the early 1990s. While the United Nations oversaw a peace deal amongst militants in North and South Kivu in 2013, conflict has persisted, and heavy fighting flare up there as recently as February.
It was because of the alarming rates of sexual violence at the hands of armed groups during this decades-long conflict that the United Nations first decided to consider rape as a weapon of war. According to a 2011 study, as many as 1.8 million women in the country have been raped. Researchers at the World Bank and Stony Brook University in New York said that 48 women are raped every hour in the DRC.
While some experts have cited lower figures, many agree that the prevalence of sexual violence are alarmingly high — and do not appear to have dwindled along with the war.
Human Rights Watch noted in a 2014 report that women as old as 80 and girls as young as two were targeted by rapists, but Dr. Mukwege began to collect figures of his youngest patients after being alarmed by how many young girls were brought to him as survivors of rape. Since he started the hospital in 1999, it’s served more than 19,000 survivors of sexual violence, and, as a reference hospital, seen some of the worst cases from around the region. Even still, the severity of the cases against the 35 children shocked Mukwege and his staff.
He said that he knows of at least three people who have been arrested for raping very young children in the Kavumu area, but did not speak to the specific cases he treated or provide details on the alleged perpetrators. Mukwege, who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the victims of sexual violence, said only that such crimes should be seen within the context of the country’s bloody civil war.
“Most of [the former soldiers], having committed [violent] acts at the age of 10 or 12, have been conditioned to do harm,” Mukwege said. “Even if they return to normal civil life, they have an incapacity to adapt and from time to time perpetrate barbaric acts, atrocities.” Haviv, of the Panzi Founation, said that people in Kavumu agree with Mukwege’s assessment. They too feel that the rapists are likely former soldiers who have put down their weapons as their armed groups were “demobilized” by government forces or through peace agreements.
“The challenge in Congo is that there are thousands of soldiers who have been demobilized over the years — there’s no work and no consistent resources for those soldiers to access where they can deal with their own trauma for the brutalities that they experienced over decades of war,” she said. “Some of those soldiers may have been children themselves when they were, whether forcibly or voluntarily, recruited into the armed groups. They have known a life of intense brutality and horrific atrocity and that is, in itself, brutalizing and traumatizing to an individual psyche and until we are able to handle the trauma of the entire population including the demobilized soldiers, we’re going to see atrocities like this continue and perhaps even escalate.”
Without support structures or economic opportunities, Haviv says that former soldiers may have returned to the brutal sexual violence that they carried out as a part of the conflict. Additionally, the ravages of war have left the Congo ill-equipped to prevent sexual violence from taking place.
“The health system, the justice system, the security system, all eroded because of the war,” she said.
While the residents of Kavumu battle with poverty and have not been able to afford adequate locks or security mechanisms to prevent break-ins, they have begun to band together to patrol their community along with the Congolese National Police, Haviv said. She added that local leaders including teachers, lawyers, and humanitarian workers have brought the crimes that have plagued their community to the attention of the federal government officials in Kinshasa.
This weekend, they held a symposium to attempt to discuss ways to protect and bring justice to their community. Haviv noted that while local leaders told the parents of rape survivors that they could veil their faces when they testified about the crimes wrought on their daughters, the parents decided against such anonymity.
Survivors of sexual violence around the world must often live with a sense of social stigma. In the Congo, this often extends to families, and with children, parents can be made to feel that they failed to protect their children.
“So [for parents] to reveal themselves as the family members of the young girls who had been raped is really the most unified sign that I can think of to put away the shame and say, ‘No this responsibility does not lie with us. This responsibility lies with the people that failed to protect us and the perpetrators themselves.’”
The parents’ testimony from the symposium will not be made public in order to protect victims’ privacy. The specific recommendations have not yet been made public, but community leaders hope their efforts will at last stop a spree of crimes which have already gone on too long.
Meanwhile, Haviv said, doctors at the Panzi Hospital’s Survivors of Sexual Violence unit continue to care for some of their youngest patients — though it’s proving difficult.
“It stretches even our resources and even our capacity, because we don’t know the long term effects of this level of brutality on such young children,” she said.