Humanitarian CrisesNews

Children As Young As 3 Sexually Exploited In DR Congo, Say UNICEF

There has been an alarming rise in reports of sexual violence against women and girls in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN says. Children are being sexually exploited in hundreds of displaced people’s camps.

Urgent action is required to address a “horrifying” increase in the rate of sexual violence against women and girls in North Kivu Province of DR Congo, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says.

The number of reported cases of violence against women and girls leapt by 37 per cent during the first three months of 2023 compared with the year before, according to activists and medical staff monitoring the situation.

“The surge in sexual violence against children is horrifying, with reports of some as young as 3 years old having been sexually exploited. This wake-up call should shock, sicken, and jolt us all into action,” Grant Leaity, representative of UNICEF in DR Congo is quoted as saying in a report published in May.

The soaring rates of abuse have also had unimaginable effects on the physical and mental health of female children and women in the province as “approximately 1 in 4 survivors of sexual violence are in need of specialised medical and psychosocial support.”

The report emphasised that while UNICEF is providing services for victims of sexual abuse in the area, more (and urgent) action is needed to increase the necessary services provided to the  victims, adding also that it is pertinent that identified sites where sexual assaults have been known to happen in and around the displacement camps be “dismantled.”

UNICEF also says that it is “aware of very high levels of sexual exploitation of children at more than 1,000 sites in and around displacement camps.”

The crises in DR Congo

The conflict in the Central African country has persisted for decades and has since the mid-1990s led to the death of about 6 million people and the displacement of more than 5 million others.

The longevity of the crises has also made it challenging to identify the original cause of the conflict which has now grown to involve more than 100 armed groups.

“At the start, rebellions abroad with rear bases in Congo, local struggles over land, resources, and identity especially over the status of groups speaking Rwandan languages, and the weakness of the Congolese state were the main causes,” a Reuters report says.

The Rwandan Genocide of 1993-1994 has also been viewed by researchers as the root cause of the Congolese crises, as it led to the large influx of refugees from neighbouring Rwanda who had in turn “reacted to a lack of strong governance in this remote section of DRC by building militias.” Those militias were intensely fought by the Congolese government in what is known as the first Congo War.

Another one called the Second Congo War which involved different government forces (with the support of Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe) against rebel forces with backing from Kenya and Uganda was fought between 1998-2003.

The diversity in the identity of the refugees can be linked directly to the diverse and numerous non-state armed groups now involved in the Congolese crises at present. Some of those groups include the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, and the M23, a rebel group from North Kivu, the same province in which the sexual assaults of children and women have been reported.

Sexual violence against children

Marie, a 16-year-old girl who was raped by a CNDP soldier in 2008.

“They said ‘The only way we can pardon you is if we rape you.’ They cut my clothes off with the knife. One of the soldiers raped me from 4 pm until 7 pm. There was blood everywhere. Then the second soldier wanted to start, there were sounds of gunshot nearby and they left,” she told Human Rights Watch.

Marie is not the only Congolese child that has gone through horrendous sexual violence in the country.

Between June 2007 and June 2008, the United Nations (UN) recorded a total of 5,517 cases of sexual violence against children in both North and South Kivu and Ituri.

In June 2022, UNICEF published an analysis detailing  “grave violations” against children in the country. According to the analysis, 763 children were sexually abused between January 2018-March 2020 and out of that number, 299 of those children were said to have been abused “as a result of recruitment and use and 32 as a result of abduction.

There have also been reports of girls in refugee camps forced into marriages, survival sex as well as the rape of school girls in the Capital city of Kinshasa has also been reported.

The latest report by UNICEF is only the “most recent” recording of crimes committed against children in the war-torn Central African country.

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Chigozie Victor

Chigozie Victor is a journalist and a creative writer. Her work focuses on SGBV, policy and security infrastructure. The graduate of English and Literature from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka is passionate about helping audiences understand salient issues through clear reporting and multimedia journalism. She tweets at @nwaanyi_manaria

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