More than 8,000 rapes were reported in eastern Congo in 2009, according to a new U.N. estimate. In Congo’s Kivu provinces alone, more than 160 women were raped per week – and this statistic likely underestimates the problem because the stigma against rape victims deters reporting. These numbers are staggering in and of themselves, but a recent connection made by the UNAIDS organization highlighted the fact that these atrocities are more than a humanitarian crisis; they are also a vital public health concern. As a recent article by MediaGlobal said:
The conflicts in DRC have exacerbated the country’s HIV/AIDS problem, and have limited the government’s response to the epidemic. The need for stabilization across all sectors of society is linked to the need for the restoration of peace. It is also linked to the need for a fortified government commitment to the security, health and wellbeing of all Congolese citizens.
In a country where multiple conflicts have destabilized eastern Congo for 12 years, resulting in the deaths of perhaps as many as 6.9 million people, issues of public health often get pushed by the wayside, especially when the overall international response to the Congo is lacking. The MediaGlobal article pointed out that the Congolese government has committed to address HIV and AIDS, but that there is a yawning gap between rhetoric and action. Unfulfilled promises of the international community are partially to blame, as the Congolese government receives 98 percent of its HIV/AIDS funding from international donors, including the United States.
Approximately 5.4 percent of Congo’s population is estimated to be living with HIV/AIDS, but according to UNAIDS and USAID HIV prevalence among women who have been victims of sexual violence could be as high as 20 percent. In places like Congo, where women, children, and men have been the victims of sexual violence by the tens of thousands, the consequences of sexual violence are population-wide and long-term.
The New York Times’ Nick Kristof wrote in a recent op-ed of the vocabulary that has been devised to fit the specific atrocities occurring in Congo. Words such as auto-cannibalism and re-rape are on that list, vividly illustrating the suffering of the victims of the violence in Congo. The recent attention to the link between sexual violence and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is a sobering reminder that, even when the decade-long war in eastern Congo eventually ends, the consequences will require international attention for many years to come.
Photo: People wait outside a health clinic in North Kivu province. (Enough/Laura Heaton)